Washington and neighbors working on U.S. 97 as inland corridor

Private businesses and public agencies — including the Washington State Transportation Commission and WSDOT — have been highlighting a prospoal to recognize and develop U.S. 97 as a major inland transportation corridor.
Several key meetings recently have given new visibility to the concept of making U.S. 97 a stronger north-south route for freight movement and an aid to economic development in Central Washington, British Columbia and Alberta.

The federal Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) established two new programs — the National Corridor Planning and Development Program and the Coordinated Board Infrastructure Program.

As part of these new programs, the federal government designated 43 high-priority national highway corridors. Washington has three north-south priority corridors: the Interstate 5 (I-5); the Western Washington FAST (Freight Action Strategy) corridor from Tacoma, through Seattle, to Everett; and Eastern Washington’s U.S. 395.

Although U.S. 97 isn’t on the federal priority list, many government agencies and private businesses in the Pacific Northwest believe it’s worthwhile to go ahead and develop a Washington-Oregon-Canadian alliance for designing a corridor strategy — and putting it to work.

“We need an inland reliever corridor,” said WSDOT Eastern Region Administrator Jerry Lenzi, who was instrumental in a significant transportation study — the Eastern Washington Intermodal Transportation Study (EWITS) — that provided the data foundation for the current effort.

“With trafic likely to increase in the priority corridors in the state’s western and eastern edges, there needs to be a well-supported optional route through Washington’s interior,” he explained.

It’s not an entirely new concept. For the past six years, a regional program — the Cascadia project — has championed corridor thinking. Commission Chair Connie Niva has served as liaison to the bi-state, bi-national Cascadia initiative since 1993.

“Transportatoin is the organizing theme for the Cascadia initiative,” said Cascadia Project Director Bruce Agnew of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a prime player in the current effort. “The project also promotes international trade, common growth management strategies and conservation.”

Giving the interior corridor concept a boost last summer was the establishment of the Cascadia Inland corridors initiative — formed after Governor Gary Locke and British Columbia Premier Glen Clark pledged support for a variety of joint transportation initiatives.

The Cascadia Inland Corridors initiative was launched with an inaugural planning session in Spokane last July — and with a second planning session in September at Osoyoos, B.C., the U.S. 97 international border corssing site.

Speaking to leaders from Idaho, Oregon, Alberta and B.C. in that first meeting in Spokane, Washington Transportation Commissioners Michele Maher and Chris Marr outlines WSDOT’s commitment to statewide freight mobility and to supporting economic development in the inland region.

Commissioner Tom Green, who has been the lead in a major commission project — updating Washington’s Transportation Plan (WTP)– has also pointed out that this U.S. 97 proposal fits well with the WTP’s 50-year vision. “This dovetails with the WTP. It’s a starting definition of what the plan means by loking at the health of an entire corridor.”

Also at that intiial planning meeting, Lenzi and WSDOT Assistant Secretary Paula Hammond (Highways and Local Programs) reviewed plans for U.S. 395 and the department’s success in securing nationally competitive TEA-21 Border and Trade Corridor program grants.

The second planning meeting at the international border attended by Green, Lenzi, Agnew and U.S. and Canadian government and business representatives explored the formation of a public-private partnership to strengthen international trade and tourism — and promote inland rural economic development.

At their Sept. 29 local jurisdiction meeitng in Spokane, the Commission then heard a report from Agnew, updating them on the U.S. 97 discussions to date. He noted that the Cascadia Inland Corridors venture will also encompass U.S. 395 and another federal priority route: Idaho’s U.S. 95 corridor. “All the corridors will need improvements if we are to maintain our vitally necessary freight movement capabilities,” noted Lenzi.

Future planning sessions are scheduled in Eugene, Ore., this month and Walla Walla in September.