Senate supports safety improvements for ‘Cougar Nation’

Unique appropriation would let WSDOT, WSU team to address concerns

OLYMPIA… At Sen. Mark Schoesler’s request, the new transportation budget adopted today by the Senate adds $400,000 for safety improvements in the State Route 26 and U.S. Highway 195 corridors. The two roads carry the majority of in-state travelers headed to and from Washington State University’s Pullman campus.

The Senate’s 2017-19 transportation plan contains more than $42 million for transportation-related activities in the 9th Legislative District, including highway and rail projects. The WSU-related appropriation is unique because it is not earmarked for specific projects but would be spent by the Washington State Department of Transportation “in consultation” with WSU stakeholders.

Schoesler’s legislative district includes WSU’s Pullman campus and much of the two highways. He said the appropriation stems from a meeting he and Sen. Curtis King, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, had with WSU student leaders in late February at the Capitol.

“Every year it seems there’s at least one fatal crash on SR 26 or US 195 associated with ‘Cougar Nation.’ The challenge of making those corridors safer is recognized by everyone I’ve talked to at WSU, from President Schulz to the student leaders who came over to share their concerns,” said Schoesler, R-Ritzville, who is Senate majority leader. “It’s a unique situation among our state’s higher-education institutions, in my experience, and the budget we approved today offers a unique answer.”

The Legislature has designated funding to address road conditions that may be factors, Schoesler said, such as adding climbing lanes between Dusty and Colfax, but that work is still several years away.

“The other side of the highway-safety equation involves drivers, and that’s where the university comes in. Let’s bring WSDOT and WSU together, with some money available for investing, and see what kind of innovative ideas emerge. I’m betting they will come up with more than one way to reduce the risks,” he said.

The budget appropriation approved by the Senate today is expected to get a warm reception from Cougar students in the Palouse.

“We came away from our meeting with Senator Schoesler and Senator King knowing they are as concerned about the safety of WSU students as the students themselves are, and optimistic that they would do everything possible to speed up the search for solutions. The students will be very pleased,” said Paige Campbell, ASWSU director of legislative affairs.

The Senate budget includes $15 million over the next four years to add acceleration and deceleration lanes, improve existing left-turn lanes, and construct safety improvements on U.S. Highway 395 between Pasco and the Franklin County line north of Connell. It also includes $10.1 million to add passing lanes on U.S. 195 between Colfax and Spangle, which also will help with WSU-related traffic.

Rail improvements in Schoesler’s legislative district account for more than $17 million in the Senate transportation budget. Projects include continued work on improving and easing congestion at the rail interchange in Connell, and keeping the three lines of the state’s longest short-line freight-rail system – the Palouse/Coulee City Railroad – in operating condition.

The PCC’s Central Washington, Palouse & Lewiston, and PV Hooper branch lines operate within Grant, Lincoln, Spokane and Whitman counties; the Senate-funded projects include repairing 11 bridges on the Palouse & Lewiston branch.

“In our part of the state you can’t overstate the importance of rail when it comes to efficiently moving important agricultural commodities to market. These dollars will be well spent,” said Schoesler, who farms wheat and canola in Adams and Lincoln counties.