WALLA WALLA -- Officials marked completion of another 8.5-mile stretch of Highway 12 between Burbank and Walla Walla that replaces an accident-plagued two-lane road.
More than 100 public officials, including Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., celebrated completion of Phase 6 of the ongoing project to widen Highway 12 to four lanes to Walla Walla.
Phase 6, which cost $56 million, built a new highway and four new intersections west of Walla Walla and a new interchange at Pine Street. Most of the funding came from the state's 91/2-cent gas tax.
The new stretch of four-lane divided highway, which was opened to traffic in late June, is expected to enhance safety, decrease congestion and promote economic development in Walla Walla.
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About 216 collisions -- including 101 injury accidents and four fatalities -- were reported from 2002-08 on that particular stretch of the old highway, said Don Whitehouse, Washington Department of Transportation regional administrator for the south central region.
So far, about 18 miles of Highway 12 between Walla Walla and Burbank have been widened with about 20 miles to go, Whitehouse said.
DOT has money for the project design and right of way for Phase 7A, which includes building a new 5 1/2-mile, multilane highway from Nine Mile Hill north of Touchet to near Lowden and connecting it with the old Highway 12, said Paula Hammond, state transportation secretary.
But there's no construction money for that project yet, she said.
Ditto for Phase 7B, which includes construction of 5 1/2 miles of highway from the proposed Woodward Canyon Road to the Frenchtown area in the east.
And there's no funding yet for Phase 8, which includes construction of a new road from near the Boise plant in Wallula to Nine Mile Hill.
But almost everyone present at Thursday's celebration was optimistic about funding coming for those projects.
"We are looking at including earmarks in transportation bills for several years to fund the project," said Murray.
"In about a decade or so, the whole thing will be completed," said Jim Kuntz, executive director of the Port of Walla Walla and a member of the Highway 12 coalition that has been lobbying since 2001 to widen the highway.
Coalition members traveled more than 316,000 miles, excluding trips to Olympia, to secure funding for Phase 6, said Shane Laib, a city council member from Walla Walla.
The Phase 6 work took 150,000 man-hours, said Amy Jenny, general manager of Apollo Inc., general contractor for the project. There were no lost-time injuries in that period, Jenny added.
With completion of Phase 6, the old section of Highway 12 will become a county road to serve several wineries along it, DOT officials said.
-- Pratik Joshi: 582-1541; firstname.lastname@example.org;