Changes for Yelm Highway

The long-awaited project aimed at relieving the last urban bottleneck on Yelm Highway is scheduled to begin in April now that Thurston County has secured final funding.

County officials announced last week that the state Transportation Improvement Board had awarded $3.9 million for the widening project between Rich Road and Henderson Boulevard. The estimated cost is $10 million, making it one of the largest road projects undertaken by the county in recent years.

Once completed, the 11/4-mile stretch will have two travel lanes in each direction, roundabouts at Boulevard Road and Brassfield Street, center medians, sidewalks and bike lanes.

The project is welcome news for drivers caught in long lines of traffic during the morning and evening rush hours. The new center median will restrict left turns to and from driveways and side streets to prevent crashes. Drivers will be able to make U-turns at the two roundabouts and at the Rich Road and Henderson Boulevard intersections.

Construction will bring more delays to the congested corridor, and the county is poised to launch an unprecedented information campaign, using readerboards, fliers, and blog and Twitter posts to keep the public informed of the project status. However, county officials are encouraging drivers to avoid the construction by taking alternative routes.

“Traffic delays are inevitable in a project of this size,” project engineer Theresa Parsons said. “However, the county and our contractor will do everything in our power to keep delays to a minimum.”

Construction won’t be complete until fall 2011, and some property owners and businesses already are girding for the disruptions and changes the project will bring.

Chris Waldron, the owner of Pioneer Technology Corp., an environmental consulting firm, said he will try to schedule work shifts so the construction isn’t too disruptive for his 15 employees. His company is one tenant in the Victoria Square professional office park at Yelm Highway and Boulevard Road.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any easy answer for it.”

He said something needs to be done to the corridor to ease traffic and reduce crashes.

“I think this is a positive thing from a safety point of view,” he said.

Parsons said the county needed to buy three houses and portions of about 50 properties to accommodate the highway widening.

One of the affected property owners is Bob Farster, who has 16,500 square feet of office space in Victoria Square. The county purchased the corner of his property for the roundabout.

The project will bring other changes. The center median will prevent left turns in and out of his driveway on Yelm Highway so eastbound customers of Farster’s tenants, including four dentists, will have to make U-turns at Rich Road.

“I don’t like it,” Farster said. “That’s growth, I guess. We’re all responsible.”

The project also will mean the loss of the cherry trees he planted along the highway almost two decades ago as saplings. Farster, a self-described tree hugger, said one of the initial attractions of the property was its room for landscaping. The county will compensate him for the lost trees, and crews will plant new ones.

“Twenty years from now, they’ll be looking like this again,” he lamented.

Parson said the county is scheduled to advertise for project bids in March. Commissioners are scheduled to award the bid in April, with the contractor getting under way by the end of April, she said.

The project will realign the section the highway between Ward and Hewitt lakes to smooth out the sharp curves. Crews also will build noise walls along the corridor.

In addition to the state grant, Thurston County is contributing $3.5 million from its road fund; a federal grant will provide $1.6 million; Olympia, $506,000; developer fees, $444,000; and Intercity Transit, $15,000.

A city of Olympia project to upgrade sewer and water utilities in the area will coincide with the highway construction. Potelco is moving power poles, and other utility crews will work in the area in advance of the construction.

The decision to widen the stretch of highway followed a 1998 study that identified Yelm Highway as the most feasible east-west corridor in the County.

Christian Hill: 360-754-5427



For updated information about the highway project, go to www.yelmhighwayinfo.blogspot.com or call the Thurston County Public Works Department at 360-754-4580.