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Wenatchee fights for vital transportation project funding

Wenatchee fights for vital transportation project funding

As the state wrestles with an growing funding shortfall for transportation maintenance and preservation, the city of Wenatchee is fighting to obtain $140.4 million for critical infrastructure improvements to reduce traffic and increase connectivity throughout the region. The city earlier this year submitted a request for an Infrastructure Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant from United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) to pay for this; though the area has struggled in the past to outcompete other jurisdictions for grants, regional transportation officials hope that will change.

“We think any day we’ll see the results of this year’s work,” Chelan-Douglas Transportation Council (CDTC) Executive Director Jeff Wilkens told the Washington State Transportation Commission at its June 16 meeting.

Wenatchee is among the few metro areas in the state with no direct connection to an interstate highway, with Highway 2 and State Route 97 being the primary means of accessing the city. Additionally, the region is also divided by the Wenatchee and Columbia Rivers, with State Route 285 and Highway 2 spanning the latter from the city of Wenatchee to East Wenatchee. Those two highways, combined with State Route 28, form what is referred to as the 11-mile long “Apple Capital Loop,” which has 100,000 vehicles a day coming in and out. It’s also where regional and local officials hope to add $285 million worth of enhancements and improvements in the form of expanded lanes, new interchanges, and underpasses for the Burlington Northern Sante Fe rail line that runs through the city.

Among the areas slotted for improvements is the North Wenatchee Avenue corridor, which experiences 40,000 vehicles a day and is fed by a dozen lanes from adjacent highways and roads. The CDTC has looked at improving that corridor since 2011 via its North Wenatchee Transportation Master Plan by creating a bypass through Confluence Parkway and a third bridge across the Columbia River.

That corridor’s traffic is only expected to increase along with population growth. Currently the region has 116,000 residents. That is projected to grow to 145,000 by 2040. According to the region’s Transportation 2040 plan update, 78 percent of commuters drive alone. It also notes an imbalance between the expected job growth and housing supply. 

“This is problematic because it can result in greater commute times and put a strain on existing transportation infrastructure,” the plan update states. 

Wilkens told the commission that for the North Wenatchee Avenue it’s “not unbearable traffic today, but it’s going to be a significant bottleneck for us in the future.”

Aside from traffic improvements, the projects are also intended to address regional connections for first responders combating wildfires. The city was the scene of the 2015 Sleepy Hollow Fire that destroyed 40 homes.

In a letter to USDOT in support of Wenatchee’s grant request, the Chelan County Council wrote that the project would “enhance our ability to respond to future emergencies and safely evacuate citizens. The impacts of…recent fire events underscore the important safety element to implementing this project.”

One of the challenges for both CDTC and the local cities is obtaining $140 million to cover the project expenses not met by local money. Although the Washington State Department of Transportation is studying potential improvements to Highway 2 between Coles Corner and Cashmere, Wilkens said that a few years ago “it became clear it wasn’t a project our state DOT was going to take direct ownership of. We realized we were kind of on our own to put together a funding strategy. How does a small metro like Wenatchee Valley tackle such a project?”

A major issue has been competing with larger regions, like Seattle the metro area, for grant funding. Wenatchee Mayor Frank Kuntz told WSTC at its June 15 meeting that “It’s difficult to compete at a federal level with the big entities. Every time we hear things like ‘the West Seattle bridge isn’t working’, my first thought is ‘there goes our money.’ But we keep trying.”

However, Wilkens says this time around additional work has been done to increase the project’s odds of success. That includes a $2 million “risk assessment” that more or less demonstrates the project wouldn’t run afoul of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

“It gave us enough of a look at the primary environmental issues we knew we’d be reviewing through NEPA,” Wilkens said. “We wanted to build confidence in the project. Unless we put the dollars forward…we probably weren’t going to be competitive for the funds.”

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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