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A years-long effort to reconstruct the intersection of Oregon and Industrial ways to reduce congestion is headed back to the drawing board after construction estimates increased by $50 million.

Local leaders are calling the new proposed plan from the Washington Department of Transportation “disappointing,” and one of them added, “It just does not make sense.”

The initial cost of proposed options to elevate the intersection near the Lewis and Clark Bridge so trains can pass underneath was estimated around $85 million as recently as earlier this year. The Legislature allocated the full amount for the project.

However, as WSDOT moved forward with engineering, the actual construction cost came in closer to $135 million, said Frank Green, WSDOT’s regional assistant administrator for development and delivery.

The majority of the cost increases are due to findings that deeper foundations would be necessary for six bridges/overpasses proposed for the intersection. The new proposal only calls for one overpass — called a flyover — and eliminates roundabouts in the original plan.

In addition, the right of way purchases needed to build the new intersection were also more expensive than anticipated, he said.

“We’re looking hard at ourselves as an agency and the support we had on the team to try to figure out how we didn’t see the estimate was higher than $85 million,” Green said. “We do see the need for this project, and we’re really focused on ... getting back to where we can construct something that meets the community’s need.”

This is the second high-profile project in the area hit by rising costs: Kelso School District may build only two of three elementary schools approved by voters earlier this year because of higher building costs and greater-than-expected foundation needs.

Vehicular traffic through the intersection is estimated to grow 40 to 50 percent by 2040. Average travel times through the area would increase five-fold (to nearly five minutes and two signal cycles), depending on the time of day and when trains pass through the area.

Local groups have been working on the current interchange project since 2010, but traffic congestion concerns date back to the 1960s.

After cost estimates shot up, WSDOT in September gathered a group of soil, bridge and design experts to look at the intersection and come up with ways to decrease the price tag.

A couple weeks ago, WSDOT presented the leading option to a group of representatives from Longview, Kelso, the Port of Longview, Cowlitz County and the Cowlitz Economic Development Council (CEDC). Green stressed that the route is just an “idea” right now and still requires a lot of engineering work and public engagement.

Under the new design, drivers would only be able to get on the Lewis and Clark Bridge from Longview by heading south on Oregon Way or from the east on Industrial Way. Vehicles coming from the west on Industrial Way would merge onto northbound Oregon Way. These drivers would then take an east-west road, which would need to be constructed, that would connect them to California Way. They would then head southeast on California Way to Industrial Way, which would then bring them back to Oregon Way and over the bridge.

Adding that circuitous route saves money and gets you within budget, but it may not meet the needs of the community,” Green said. “That idea is not moving forward until we are sure it meets the needs of the community.”

Part of the public process could include adding back elements from previous plans that the community says it needs, Green said.

Sen. Dean Takko (D-Longview), who helped secure the $85 million for the project, said everyone he has talked to about the new proposal is “shaking their head” about the route.

“They just went far and beyond what I would consider anybody would do. It just does not make sense. Granted, it saves a whole bunch of money … but you could spend $45 million and do what this proposal is and most of us would say you made the problem worse than when you started,” Takko said.

He said he was surprised to hear about the changes because everything seemed to be going smoothly until a week ago.

Kelso City Councilman Mike Karnofski, who serves on the local steering team for the project as part of the CEDC, said he was surprised to learn about the new plan two weeks ago. He first started working on solutions for the intersection in 1990 when he was employed at Weyerhaeuser Co,which owns the log yard at the southwest side of the intersection.

“I was disappointed in their alternative. I don’t think it really meets the mission statement in the project because the idea in my mind was to improve traffic flow through there and I don’t think their alternative necessarily improves the traffic flow through that intersection,” Karnofski said Friday.

He added that the proposed path for the connection road from Oregon Way to California Way would cut right through the Walmart parking lot and about 76 acres of undeveloped industrial property in Longview.

The new proposal would need to go through the environmental process again, including a public comment period. But Green said he doesn’t think the project is back at square one. They can draw on the work that has already been done on the soil composition and the community’s needs as the project moves forward, he said.

“We want to make sure it’s known to the community that we’re committed to moving down a path of construction and we recognize the need at this intersection to make improvements. We’re going to do our best to work with the community and try to stay on the timeline,” Green said. “We recognize the frustration, and we are committed to finding a solution we can move forward with.”

Construction was scheduled to begin in 2021. Green said the project may stay on schedule if rights of way can be purchased while also developing a new plan. But realistically, he said, the schedule could be delayed.

Karnofski said the project needs to continue because it is crucial for access to the Mint Farm, Barlow Point and the other industrial projects and lands in the area.

“This project is key to economic development and the economic health of the area,” he said. “You can’t keep putting it off. You’ve got to do something. But when you do something, you can’t just put on a quick fix. You’ve got to look at the future and make sure you’re investing in something that will take care of the future.”

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