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A year after a whopping cost estimate forced them back to the drawing board, state transportation officials have drafted a new plan to reduce congestion at the Oregon Way-Industrial Way intersection, one of the state’s busiest freight corridors.

State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) officials Tuesday unveiled the design for The Daily News, stressing they still are testing and refining the plan, which likely is at least five years away from completion.

A former government transportation planner who worked on the intersection design for years said the new plan has “tremendous potential” to boost the region’s future development. And Longview and Cowlitz County officials last week seemed optimistic, calling the plans “workable.”

“This intersection has been identified for a long time for some improvement,” Cowlitz County Commissioner Joe Gardner said Wednesday. “To feel like it has stalled so often and hasn’t gained momentum is frustrating, but it’s a pretty big project with a lot of entities, so naturally it’s going to take some time. I think we are hopefully building momentum again.”

The latest plan, with an estimated cost of $95 million to $110 million, would create an elevated intersection at Oregon and Industrial ways with a four-way stop light and turn lanes. A new right hand turn lane would be added to steer traffic from westbound Industrial way onto northbound Oregon Way (near the Starbucks).

The BNSF Railway track (shown in blue on the map accompanying this story) would be diverted underneath the intersection before continuing west, eliminating two existing grade crossings. A yet-to-be constructed rail line (in red on the map) the Port of Longview hopes to build one day to serve its Barlow Point property west of Longview also would be built under the elevated intersection.

The new plan is much simpler and has a much smaller footprint than the previous plan. However, it still would cost more than the $85 million the state has allocated for it.

Most directions of traffic flow and turns would remain unchanged. There are two important exceptions, both affecting access to and from the Port of Longview and the Weyerhaeuser Co. log yard.

The intersection already suffers significant traffic backups during peak hours even when there is no rail traffic through the area, and the plan does significantly alter the principal cause: All east-west (Industrial Way) and north-south (Oregon Way) passenger vehicles still will be funneled through the same, lighted intersection. WSDOT has yet to complete an analysis of how the plan would affect traffic flow.

The plan largely is intended to eliminate congestion caused by rail traffic. Right now, about four trains a day pass through that area. Officials estimate that number will increase to between 20 and 30 as development continues, WSDOT Kelso Area Engineer Joanna Lowrey said Wednesday.

Longview City Manager Kurt Sacha said there’s a safety concern when trains with 100 cars halt traffic for 20 minutes as they pass through an intersection.

“When you have a waterfront full of industry with workers and citizens that at any moment could have a personal injury, an accident, a heart attack or any kind of health event occur and it’s 20 minutes before emergency medical response can get there, we’ve got a problem,” he said. “That’s not acceptable.”

Sacha added he’s been told the intersection is the third busiest for freight in Washington. And as development continues at the Port of Longview and on the west side of town, vehicle traffic will continue increasing, he said last week.

“Traffic analysis indicated that even if rail traffic does not increase, with the growth in vehicular traffic and current rail traffic, congestion will get significantly worse and our intersection on this corridor is going to provide unsatisfactory service,” Longview Public Works Director Jeff Cameron said. “When you have freight sitting there in congestion, it’s not making the company any money.”

Much of the westbound truck traffic on Industrial Way makes a left (southbound) turn at Oregon Way and then veers off to the frontage road (West Port Way) to get to the Port of Longview and Weyerhaeuser log yard, according to WSDOT.

To separate trucks from other motorists, the new plan routes freight traffic underneath the elevated intersection. Truckers would veer off to the right on a long exit lane and curve left underneath the new elevated intersection. They could then continue south on East Port Way to the port or funnel back under Oregon Way to reach the Weyerhaeuser log yard.

The intersection plan does not provide for a way to return to Industrial Way westbound or Oregon Way northbound from the Port or the Weyerhaeuser log gate near the Lewis and Clark Bridge. Motorists would have to “find their own way up and around” and make a lengthy circuit as far east as California Way before they can head westbound, Lowery said.

Two factors may ease this situation: One, traffic volume returning to Industrial Way from the port and log yard is low, Lowery said. Two, next year the port intends to shift its main access road from East Port Way to International Way, which meets Industrial Way about a half mile east of the Oregon Way intersection.

However, the plan would reduce Weyerhaeuser’s log truck access back to the intersection area, and the log gate directly off Industrial Way would be cut off by the ramp for the next elevated intersection.

Starting from scratch

The Legislature awarded $85 million for the project in 2015. WSDOT started with 15 designs and narrowed its options to two plans for the draft environmental impact statement released in spring 2018.

However, nine months later, WSDOT reported the preferred plans actually would cost about $50 million more than originally estimated, for a total price tag of $135 million. (The majority of the cost increases were due to the discovery that deeper foundations would be necessary for the six proposed bridges/overpasses for the intersection.)

To cut costs, WSDOT proposed a new route that eliminated the roundabouts and five of the overpasses in the original plan. But the resulting path detoured motorists far out of their way — as far as California Way. To say local leaders were disappointed with the proposal would be “an understatement,” Sacha said last week.

The proposal failed a traffic analysis in December and is no longer under consideration, but Lowrey said she’s OK with the public criticism it received.

“Sometimes you have to think way outside the box to figure out exactly where you were off target in the first place,” she said. “I’m OK with the fact that it didn’t work. I’m OK with the fact that it got criticized because we learned a lot from it.”

Starting almost from scratch has put plans behind schedule (the final environmental review was supposed to be finished in 2017) — and officials said they weren’t even sure how much the project has been set back.

“We thought at this time we would have an alternative selected and we’d be well on our way to purchasing right of way, and we’re still working on a concept,” said Devin Reck, WSDOT’s regional assistant administrator for development and delivery.

A variety of factors could affect how quickly the project moves forward. Will BNSF Railway agree to reroute the tracks under the new overpass? Can planners get project costs down to $85 million? If not, can local leaders secure additional grants? Meanwhile, construction costs and property values could continue to rise.

WSDOT is moving forward with two potential plans. The two are essentially the same, except the less expensive option would eliminate an overpass for an existing BNSF port spur (in purple on the map) that parallels East Port Way. If BNSF is willing to eliminate that rail line, then the project is estimated to cost $95 million. If not, the cost would be close to $110 million.

Lowrey said BNSF seemed open to redirecting its railroad, which is included in project cost estimates, but eliminating the port spur is “a little less certain” because it would require customers to come in from another route. BNSF is looking at the plans now and has said it will have a response by the end of the year, Lowrey said.

In the meantime, WSDOT is conducting traffic modeling for the draft plans, which Reck said they will continue to tweak for possible cost reductions.

“Bridges are expensive. Walls are expensive,” Reck said, so they want to use as few as possible.

Rosemary Siipola, who headed the project when it was under the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Council of Governments until 2014, said the new plan hearkens back to designs considered in the mid-1990s and early 2000s.

She said Thursday that she was “very impressed” with the new plan, which she called a major improvement from WSDOT’s proposal a year ago.

However, she added that the intersection is one piece of a much broader regional effort to improve traffic flow. And the new intersection doesn’t address backups at the Third Avenue railroad crossing, she said.

“This could be a fabulous piece of infrastructure, but you have to think a whole lot bigger,” she said. “This is part one.”

Grant funding ‘sweet spot’

While WSDOT tries to reduce project costs, local officials are looking into two federal grant opportunities that could be awarded as early as late next fall. Sacha said he was optimistic about the area’s chances because the $7 million to $15 million gap is in a “sweet spot” for federal grant funding in rural communities, especially since the project already has significant funding from the state.

Cameron said the environmental review will probably take another eight months to a year. Then they can start the preliminary design and start acquiring right of way. The bulk of the state money becomes available in 2021, he said, so “timing wise, we’re still looking good if we can get a federal grant.” Construction would likely take four years, he said.

Sacha thanked WSDOT and the technical advisory committee of local stakeholders for revisiting the project.

“We’re certainly grateful they were willing to step back and take another look at this,” he said. “Kudos to them for coming up with some pretty workable alternatives.”

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