Bees, money pose hurdles for Highway 12 widening

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WALLA WALLA — Road intersections, river crossings and alkali bees.

And money.

Those were among issues covered Thursday as Port of Walla Walla commissioners were updated on the final two phases of work needed to widen U.S. Highway 12 to four lanes between Walla Walla and the Columbia River.

Joining in the briefing were Walla Walla County commissioners Greg Tompkins and Jim Johnson.

Troy Suing, an assistant regional planning administrator with the Washington State Department of Transportation, said the department currently has about $2 million to work on Phase 7, which will require about $126 million to complete. There is no funding for Phase 8, which will cost about $250 million.

The $2 million will be used to start obtaining the needed rights of way.

“We’re looking to have public meetings toward the end of July on right of way acquisition,” Suing told commissioners. A total of about $13 million will be needed to acquire all of the right of way for Phase 7, which will extend from the vicinity of Frenchtown to Nine Mile Hill.

Port Executive Director Jim Kuntz said an effort should be made to see if any of the $81 million taken out of the recently approved state transportation budget by Gov. Jay Inslee could be obtained. The money was to be spent planning a replacement bridge that would extend Interstate 5 over the Columbia River in the Vancouver area.

“We may want to work to see if we can get some of that money to do right of way acquisition,” Kuntz said.

Suing said the “big three” items for Phase 7 are the design for four major intersections with existing roads, bridging the Touchet River and efforts to mitigate harm to alkali bees, which are vital to pollination of the high-value alfalfa seed crops grown in the region.

While the main clusters of alkali bee beds are south of the proposed new roadway, Suing said there will be losses among bees flying from beds located in the vicinity of the proposed route.

“We’re sensitive to that,” he said. “We’ll be looking at each individual parcel to assess the impacts to each owner.”

But Tompkins said that in his conversations with people in the area, the concerns run deeper regarding the loss of bees exposed traffic on a wider expanse of roadway.

“The idea to buy land at fair market value is one thing, but what about the impact to future generations?” he asked, referring to the effect a loss of pollinating bees could have on crop yields.

Suing said solutions are being sought, including possibly relocating bee beds.

“We’re definitely looking into that,” he said.

“I just want to make sure that we can, to the best of our ability, take care of these people,” Tompkins answered.

In regard to intersections, Suing said the four major crossings will be at Lower Dry Creek-Buckley Road, Woodward Canyon Road, Touchet North Road and Nine Mile Road.

Current plans call for Nine Mile Road and Touchet North Road to go under the roadway with connecting roadways to access Highway 12. The remaining two intersections will have at-grade crossings similar to those on the present four-laned sections of the highway.

Bridging the Touchet River presents its own challenges, Suing said. Although the stream appears to run in a relatively narrow channel, the area widens considerably during floods, which would demand a much longer, more expensive bridge to clear.

However, engineers believe the issue can be solved by building a 250-foot span over the river along with culverts to channel floodwaters away, he said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

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