The new semester starts Monday at Washington State University, and that means hundreds of college students will be traveling on the two main rural highways heading into Pullman.
Many families will be anxious until they hear their college-age kids have arrived safely — and this time, particularly so.
These are the same two roads that parents and WSU supporters want to see made safer after two students traveling over Thanksgiving break died in horrific, head-on collisions.
Christine Hunter, a freshman from Spokane, died Nov. 20 on Interstate 195 near Rosalia. Morgan Cope, 20, of Buckley, Wa., died on Highway 26 west of Colfax on Nov. 22.
Naturally, emotions are raw and people are angry. The combination of winding, two-lane roads and an influx of young drivers heading to WSU has been a concern for decades.
Highway 26 was built in 1963 and I-195 in 1974. The student population at WSU has surged since then to about 20,000. Anyone who has traveled to WSU for a football game or to help their teenager set up a dorm room knows the roads are inadequate at those times, although state transportation officials say most of the year those roads are acceptable for the traffic volume they see.
Still, when it comes to student safety, there is nothing more important. An online petition calling for the addition of passing lanes on both highways was started in the wake of the fatal accidents, and gathered 6,000 signatures before Christmas. The state already has money designated for the work, but construction won’t start until next year for I-195 and 2025 for Highway 26.
In response to the outcry, State Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said that money Gov. Jay Inslee wants to divert to improve fish passages should instead be spent on making the roads to Pullman safer.
It seems like an obvious solution. But it isn’t — although we wish it were.
Here’s the dilemma: Lawmakers hammered out a 16-year, $16.1 billion transportation package during the last legislative session that prioritizes road and construction projects throughout the state. Getting the transportation package approved meant tough concessions on the part of many legislators.
But now Inslee is proposing to shift $113 million from the road preservation fund to improving fish passages, Schoelser said. “If he (Inslee) is going to do that,” Schoesler said, then that money should go toward making those Pullman roads safer for students.
But complying with a federal court order is behind the need to spend money on fish runs. Twenty-one Washington tribes sued, and now transportation officials are expected to repair or replace culverts all around the state by 2030. Cost for the fix is estimated at $2.4 billion, and the $300 million the Legislature already allocated toward the project is not enough to keep on track.
That’s why Inslee is looking to add to it. But now Schoesler also wants that money, and it would be understandable if other lawmakers wanted it as well for their districts.
We want the WSU roads to be made safer — no question. But shifting money in a transportation package that took months to negotiate seems unfair and back-handed.
Inslee and Schoesler need to find a better way.