Three in four people surveyed by telephone think extending Spirit Lake Memorial Highway to the east side of Mount St. Helens sounds like a fine idea.

At the same time, comments to the state Department of Transportation are running in the opposite direction: 70 percent oppose connecting the dead-end highway, State Route 504, to roads in Skamania or Lewis counties. Opponents also have dominated public meetings on the topic.

What those numbers mean depends on who's doing the interpreting — and whether they think building the new road is a good idea in the first place.

The DOT's feasibility study is nearly finished. The process whittled numerous potential routes to two: one eastward across the "pumice plain" near Spirit Lake and over Windy Ridge; the other northward toward Riffe Lake, crossing mostly Weyerhaeuser Co. land. The Windy Ridge route has both the most ardent supporters among tourism interests and the most vehement detractors among environmentalists and scientists.

The study team's Public Involvement Committee (PIC) got a peek Tuesday at preliminary results of the survey, which Washington State University conducted in late March.

Road opponents said the survey didn't give people enough information, including how much the project would cost, where the road might be built and what damage it could cause to fragile landscapes, endangered species and scientific studies. Proponents said the survey is a fairer measure of how the public values better access to benefit recreation, education, safety and local economies.

"I'm in favor of going to the next step," said PIC member Mark Smith, owner of Eco Park Resort on the highway. Smith said the survey proves the road extension has broad support. "It will be so great that we'll all wonder why we didn't do it 20 years ago."

"I think that conclusions from the (survey) are of limited value because of the way the survey was done," said PIC member Charlie Raines of the Sierra Club, one of several organizations in a "No More Roads at Mount St. Helens" campaign.

The 10-minute telephone survey questioned 1,000 residents of Washington and the Portland area. It was weighted so that 300 respondents live near the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, including residents of Cowlitz and Lewis counties.

Most people surveyed had visited the monument and were likely to do so again, especially if the road were extended. Most thought that the federal government and visitors should pay the construction and maintenance costs.

Tom Knappenberger, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest's PIC member, said the estimated $1.2 million per year it would take just to maintain a road across Windy Ridge would drain the forest's entire road maintenance budget. The estimated cost to build a road through that area is $41 million.

Opponents such as Noel McCrae, another PIC member, said making visitors pay for the road through tolls could backfire by discouraging tourists.

County governments will decide whether to take the next step: Ordering a comprehensive environmental study that would cost millions of dollars.

Cowlitz County Commissioner Jeff Rasmussen, also on the PIC, said he supports the study and would like to see the road built — but not if it is at the expense of more pressing needs in the county.

To reach Eric Apalategui, call (360) 577-2539 or e-mail ea@tdn.com

The Washington State Department of Transportation will accept written comments on its State Route 504 Extension Feasibility Study through April 11.

Address written comments to engineer Brian McMullen by:

Mail: Brian McMullen, WSDOT, 11018 NE 51st Circle, Vancouver, WA 98668-1709.

Fax: (360) 905-2222.

E-mail: mcmullb@wsdot.wa.gov

For more information, call McMullen at (360) 905-2055 or go to www.wsdot.wa.gov/projects/SR504/

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