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Originally published January 4, 2011 at 9:45 PM | Page modified January 5, 2011 at 7:30 AM

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Room for wildlife in state budget? Advocates push to continue I-90 project

Advocates of the I-90 improvement project are hoping the Legislature this session will fund the next mile of work, including widening the pavement to six lanes and building one of the nation's first wildlife overcrossings.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Information

WSDOT I-90 project page: http://seati.ms/fkIEQ1 (case sensitive)

I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition: www.i90wildlifebridges.org/

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Sleek and plump, they scratch, sniff and lollygag.

Bear, deer and other animals captured by remote research cameras seem blissfully unaware they are in an island between lanes of traffic on Interstate 90 at Easton, or at the freeway's edge, dangerously close to a crossing that could be fatal, not only for them, but potentially for drivers.

In 2005, the Legislature approved an improvement project along the 15 miles of I-90 from Hyak to Easton. Twenty-four crossing structures in 14 locations, both under and over the road, would allow animals to better go about their daily lives, searching for food, mates, and extending their home range to patterns more normal than allowed today, with the highway slicing through their world.

The next mile of the project includes what is believed to be one of the country's first major wildlife overcrossings — a bridge just for animals, to allow them to move over the highway safely.

The project also would widen the road to six lanes and add chain-up areas. With the wildlife crossings, the project would improve safety on the state's busiest east-west route for both people and animals.

Advocates for the project want to see savings realized from contractors' lower bids in the first phase applied toward the first mile of the second phase.

The original bill passed in 2005 stipulated that any cost savings go back into the I-90 corridor.

But in a state starved for gasoline-tax revenue, the total budget for this project this year has been reduced by $20 million to be spent on other projects statewide. The Governor's Office is proposing to use $41.5 million of possible project savings from the first phase of the project on other transportation projects, and to fund the second phase of the I-90 corridor starting in 2021.

Waiting to fund the next phase likely will add costs, advocates of the project warn. And waiting could require the state to update the environmental-impact statement and renegotiate other agreements.

"It never gets faster, and it never gets cheaper," said Karen Bonaudi, assistant executive director of the Washington Potato Commission. "We are so dependent on efficient highway travel, we have been a backer of the I-90 widening project from the beginning."

Washington is second only to Idaho in potato production, and Washington growers market nine of every 10 of their potatoes outside the state, Bonaudi said. Every year, some $515 million worth of processed potato products, such as French fries, are shipped across the Cascades and through Washington ports.

For that reason, she said, the commission wants the state to keep going on the I-90 work.

GOP state Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, ranking minority member of the Senate Transportation Commission, has taken an interest in the project, and said he wants to look at all options for funding.

"Maybe we should look at possibly doing not just the first mile, but two or three miles, if we get a better bang for the buck," King said. "I-90 is a very vital corridor for the trucking of all of our products and produce. The more we can do to keep that open, and keep it safe, and keep it as viable a corridor as we can all year round is very important."

Surely for animals, moving ahead on the project would be a good thing, said Charlie Raines of the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club. The collaboration to get the project built since 2005 deserves recognition, Raines said. A letter to Gov. Chris Gregoire advocating funding for the project this session was signed by an unusually diverse range of supporters, including wildlife advocates, the AAA, the potato commission, the Port of Ephrata, environmental litigators and county economic-development advocates.

"What we want to do is keep this project moving, and the coalition that is supporting it together," Raines said.

"We love this project and would like to see the cost savings go back into the corridor," said Brian White, manager of the project for the Washington State Department of Transportation. "But the reality is there is this balancing act that has to go on statewide. The Legislature has the opportunity to decide."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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