Preservation groups applaud I-90 upgrade project

YAKIMA -- Seldom do conservation groups applaud a road project.

This is one of those times.

A coalition of preservation groups calls the final plan for upgrading Interstate 90 from Hyak -- near the summit of heavily traveled Snoqualmie Pass -- to Easton a benefit to motorists and wildlife.

An average of 27,000 vehicles cross the pass each day. On holidays, such as Labor Day, the number jumps to about 58,000.

"From a wildlife standpoint, it will be better after than it is today," said Charlie Raines of Seattle, campaign director for Interstate 90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition. "Because of the wildlife crossings, it will be a better highway than it is today. Safer for people and wildlife."

Wildlife crossings, longer bridges and overpass bridges are a few elements of a long-studied plan to upgrade the freeway near the summit to reduce avalanche closures, add traffic capacity and improve safety.

Work on the first phase of the 15-mile project is scheduled to begin next year.

The Washington Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration have issued a final environmental impact statement on the potentially $1.3 billion project. The document identifies, as the best alternative, adding a long snowshed that would cover both directions of travel in the area of the existing snowshed that protects only the westbound lanes.

In addition, the project will expand the freeway to six lanes, straighten curves, replace the existing concrete pavement, lengthen bridges and add wildlife overpasses to reduce traffic collisions with wildlife.

Among the four alternatives reviewed, the extended snowshed concept is the least expensive and involved the fewest environmental issues, said Brian White, assistant DOT regional administrator in Union Gap.

"This alternative allows us to stay on the existing alignment, which reduces impacts and is a lot easier to build," he said.

The alternatives rejected in the environmental document involved building tunnels, which are more costly for ongoing maintenance.

A final decision by the Federal Highway Administration is expected in October.

The initial phase, the 5-mile section from Hyak to near Keechelus Dam, is the only portion that is funded. A total of $545 million is set aside from the recent 9.5-cent gas tax increase.

The work could take up to six years. Completing the remaining 10 miles -- depending on funding -- may take another 15 years.

Some work will begin next year with major construction activity in 2010.

Jason Smith, DOT environmental manager for the project, said the corridor will include 14 of what are called connectivity emphasis areas, lengthier bridges, larger culverts and overpasses that will benefit fish and wildlife by improving flood plains and connecting wildlife habitat.

Gold Creek, just below Hyak, is a spawning area for Bull Trout, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The most visual of the features will be two landscaped wildlife overpasses that animals can use to migrate safely through the freeway corridor. Neither is proposed for inclusion in the first phase of construction.

Smith said the Central Cascades are unusual because of the wide swaths of publicly owned land north and south of the freeway. With safe crossings, wildlife will be able to move from Mount Rainier to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

Smith said the wildlife migration routes and other features are designed to support efforts by nonprofit groups to acquire land for preservation.

Purchases of privately owned land for conservation now cover nearly the entire 15-mile corridor.

* On the web: www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/I90/SnoqualmiePassEast/HyaktoKeechelusDam/