The state Department of Transportation only spent about $250,000 of the $500,000 local legislators helped allocate for engineers to develop a plan for improving the intersection of State Highway 12 and Schouweiler Road.
State Rep. Brian Blake says he remains confused why the full amount wasn’t spent and, if there was money left over, why the agency didn’t make more headway on getting the intersection improved. Instead, the remaining funds will go back to the state unused.
Improving the intersection in terms of safety and ease of use has been a priority for Grays Harbor County Commissioner Terry Willis since she took office. Citing the economic value of the nearby industrial park, Willis convinced her fellow commissioners in 2009 to take a leading role.
The county has spent nearly $50,000 on studies and designs to reconfigure the intersection to add more acceleration and deceleration lanes, according to Utilities Director Kevin Varness, using a special economic development pot from the state’s sales tax that is returned to the county specifically for infrastructure projects like this one.
The expenditure was an unusual one because it’s a state highway, not a county road. But the hope was spending the funds would save the state money and make it a higher priority.
In 2010, state Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, inserted $500,000 in the state’s Capital Budget toward the intersection improvements. Typically, transportation funds come from a separate Transportation Budget, but Hatfield was able to make an exception for this project.
Kevin Dayton, the head of the Olympic Region for DOT, said his office was able to use about $250,000 from the allocation. Dayton said because the county had done so much preliminary work and no right-of-way needed to be purchased, the design was relatively easy.
“We basically took the plan laid years ago and perfected it to what we would do for the state highway,” Dayton said. “Technically, we were supposed to just do a study but we were able to do a design. We were pleased we were able to get the project teed up for construction one day.”
Dayton said the full allocation simply wasn’t needed.
“I’m a bit miffed because I don’t understand why they didn’t come back to us last year and say they were going to have all of this money left over,” said Rep. Blake, D-Aberdeen. “The money couldn’t be used for anything else and, surely, we could have put it back to them so they could have started some kind of construction work. I disagree with the assertion that the budget language was restrictive and think we could have converted it to construction dollars.”
Dayton said full construction at the intersection would cost about $1.2 million.
Hatfield said he doesn’t understand why the extra funds couldn’t have been used to do some initial work.
“So, instead of a $1.2 million project, maybe it could have been a $1 million project,” Hatfield said. “They could have come to me. I would have helped.”
Blake and Hatfield said the issue remains a priority to them as they head into the next legislative session.
On Monday, the county commissioners approved spending another $8,000 for consultants to continue working with the DOT on the issue next year.
At this point, Dayton says he doesn’t think any kind of improvements will happen at Schouweiler Road, absent some kind of new Transportation package that increases taxes to fund local projects like this.
“There really is no capital program in the Department of Transportation that would fund something like this, unless there’s something like a federal grant,” Dayton said.
There’s not even a list to put the intersection improvement project on to fund five years down the road.
“People are driving less, they’re car pooling and cars are getting 30 to 35 miles per gallon, which is decreasing our revenue (from gas tax)” Dayton said. “All of this stuff burns fewer gallons of fuel, which means less money for roads.”
State Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview, who sits on the House Transportation Committee, says he thinks Dayton may very well be right.
“Even for a little million-dollar project, we’re going to need more money to make it happen,” Takko said. “Whether it’s a big project or a little project nothing’s going to happen unless there’s a revenue package. And, without a doubt, it’ll have to go to a vote of the people — whether it’s a gas tax increase or something else.”
Dayton said that about the only way the state Department of Transportation may consider fixing the interchange is if there’s a history of accidents. A check of Daily World archives turned up at least two fatalities.
In 2003, an 82-year-old Hoquiam man was killed when his pickup truck collided with a semi-truck on Highway 12 at Schouweiler Road. The Hoquiam man’s truck crossed the eastbound lanes and was struck in the westbound lanes by the semi-truck.
In 2004, a motorcyclist died and the passenger was injured when the driver lost control of his 1981 Harley-Davidson as he made a right turn onto Schouweiler Road from State Route 12. The driver was found to be intoxicated, although the estate and the passenger later filed lawsuits against the county.
There are also reports of other non-fatal accidents at the intersection. Willis says sometimes trucks don’t even use the road, choosing to go out of the way to a better intersection at Elma. Intersection issues could also be an issue in attracting businesses to the East County Industrial Park, Willis points out.
Steven Friederich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3927, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org