Construction on a massive county road expansion project, called the East-West Corridor, is scheduled to start this fall.

The project, which has been in the works for more than 20 years, will provide a second connection linking the Terrace Heights neighborhood to Yakima. The chosen route, which aims to reduce traffic congestion and improve public safety, will connect with improvements on H Street in the city of Yakima and extend eastward over Interstate 82 to cross the Yakima River, with an eastern boundary at Butterfield Road.

As the construction date draws nearer, something that started out as a concept — a “possible pipe dream,” according to one county commissioner — has become real.

And personal.

Homeowners along the route — including 75-year-old Yakima resident Lynn Cosmos, who created a self-sustaining sanctuary in her property on Butterfield Road — raised objections to the project during what county officials otherwise considered a quiet process. Matt Pietrusiewicz, the Yakima County engineer, said the switch in the project’s status from something “conceptual” to an imminent reality is a likely factor.

“My sense is that since it is such a long-term project, and since we didn’t have the funding in place, it might not have seemed real to people. It was more conceptual,” Pietrusiewicz said. “And that may have been why there wasn’t more reaction.”

The Herald-Republic has received letters to the editor from concerned readers since Cosmos shared her story.

“I cannot fathom taking away people’s homes and uprooting people’s entire lives in the name of ‘progress’ and improving ‘traffic,’” wrote Rachel Pybon, of Yakima. “Have any of you been to Seattle?”

Though Cosmos has reached an agreement with the county to move to new property in the West Valley, questions may linger: what other routes were considered, why were those routes rejected, and is the $165 million East-West Corridor needed?

The Herald-Republic connected with Pietrusiewicz and County Commissioner Mike Leita to backtrack the routes, the issues, and the reasons behind the ultimate decision to move forward with the current route.

County Commissioners Norm Childress and Ron Anderson deferred to Leita for commission comment.

Backtracking the corridor project

Proponents say the corridor will improve traffic flows and help development at the former Boise Cascade mill property and Terrace Heights.

Three agencies are involved in the project. The city of Yakima completed its first phase of the city project by constructing a roundabout on Fair Avenue and extending Bravo Company Boulevard to the mill site boundary in 2015, with plans to complete additional improvements to H street and a connection to the Mill Parkway by 2023.

Yakima County will provide the additional connections from Terrace Heights to northeast Yakima, with construction planned to start in 2019 and to end in 2024.

The Washington State Department of Transportation plans to improve Interstate 82 between the U.S. Highway 12 interchange and the Nob Hill overpass by replacing bridges and improving connections on and off the interstate, with construction planned to start in 2024 and to end in fall of 2026.

Discussion of a new corridor connecting Terrace Heights to Yakima began in the 1990s, with officials citing a need to improve traffic safety, circulation and capacity as both neighborhoods saw continued growth and development.

Studies began in 2001, when a Hardy ESE report identified two possible routes: a northern alternative, at the base of Yakima Ridge, and a southern alternative, which split Terrace Heights in half.

Berger ABAM, a consulting firm specializing in planning, engineering and environmental services with headquarters in Federal Way, entered the picture in 2008, when the county requested expanded consideration of those routes.

The firm’s 2011 report recognized a need for the additional corridor, citing a five-fold increase in the population of Terrace Heights between 1970 and 2000. The report also cited the D rating of service on the Yakima Avenue and Terrace Heights Drive corridor, which limited the number of  development permits the county could issue.

But the proposal had downsides. A new corridor, regardless of the route, would inevitably displace homeowners and businesses. The area contained a Bureau of Reclamation facility, which had to be skirted because the county could not take federal land through eminent domain.

The area also encompassed Skyline Mobile Estates Trailer park, a mobile home community with many elderly individuals. Displacing those residents could trigger environmental justice protections — in which minority or low-income communities cannot be disproportionately harmed by policies — as well as environmental concerns. Many of the trailers had been built prior to 1977 and could contain asbestos or lead-based paint, which would be costly to destroy.

Berger consultants evaluated a number of other factors when considering possible routes, including reduced traffic congestion, connection opportunities to the existing roadway, compatibility with non-motorized use, and the environmental impact and cost.

In the end, the firm identified four possible routes for an alternate corridor — Ridge Top, Rest Haven Bench, Ridge Base, and the Lowlands routes — and a number of strengths and liabilities for each.

The Ridge Top route

Ridge Top route

Illustration by Aidian Holder, Yakima Herald-Republic

The Ridge Top route turned north sharply in the Yakima River floodplain, intersected Marsh Road to the west and then immediately began a steep rise up the Yakima Ridge, where it then crossed the Roza Canal and skirted the tops of several hills before tying into the east end of the corridor.

The Ridge Top route had the largest amount of undeveloped land, and so impacted the fewest number of homes. It also bypassed Bureau of Reclamation property and the Skyline Mobile Estates.

But Berger consultants deemed Ridge Top the riskiest and most costly of the routes due to serious slope instability issues across much of the upper Yakima Ridge. The route also presented the most serious engineering and construction challenges associated with massive cuts and fills required to remove the hilltops.

The consultants speculated that Terrace Heights residents would not travel a grade incline of more than 10% to get to the top of a remote ridge that ultimately would lead them back down the grade. The isolation of the northern route also would limit the number of locations for possible connections to the existing roadway network. And the length and complexity of building a bridge over the Yakima River and floodplain would increase the route’s overall cost.

Leita said that disturbing so much untouched ground also resulted in cultural concerns.

“We went through a lot of discussion about this northerly route, because it was the least intrusive to homeowners,” he said. “But as we delved into it further, there were concerns with the Yakama Nation since this was going to require a lot of excavation.”

The Rest Haven Bench route

Rest Haven Route

The proposed Rest Haven Route in the Berger ABAM 2011 report.

The Rest Haven Bench route would extend the Yakima River Bridge tangent through the floodplain, bank north, intersect Marsh Road just west of Reclamation property and then begin a steep rise to the natural floodbank bench halfway up the ridge. The existing Rest Haven Road would have to be widened for the project.

The Rest Haven Bench route most closely followed the existing terrain, meaning that less earth would be disturbed during construction. The more central route also posed a lower level of danger from slope instability and offered more connections to the existing roadway network.

But the Rest Haven Bench route would have impacted the most homeowners, while also most negatively impacting the quality of life of those who remained, the consultants and Leita noted.

“There was a two-lane road only used for local access. If you put a corridor through it with people moving from east to west, people will lose their tranquility,” Leita said. “We were also going to blow through more properties.”

The Ridge Base route

Ridge Base route

The proposed Ridge Base route in the Berger ABAM 2011 report.

The Ridge Base route moved the corridor further south and down to the base of the ridge rise, carried the proposed corridor over Reclamation property with a bridge and relocated Marsh Road to the south portion of Reclamation property adjacent to the railroad tracks. The route traced the northern fringe of Skyline Mobile estates, rose to the ridge, crossed the Roza canal and finally tied in with the established east end of the East-West Corridor.

The Ridge Base route addressed Reclamation’s concerns regarding pedestrian safety, access and security of property and vehicles, current and future parking availability, and expansion opportunities.

But the route required extensive realignment of existing roads and required that the county acquire significant land from both private owners and Reclamation. The more than 1,000 foot bridge over Reclamation property increased costs considerably.

The route also raised social and environmental justice issues, since the route would have impacted the Skyline mobile home community, Leita said.

The Lowlands Route

Lowlands Route EW

A depiction of the proposed Lowlands Route in the Berger ABAM 2011 report.

This southernmost route ran parallel to the Columbia Basin railroad tracks to the existing intersection of Marsh and Butterfield Road, combining the Marsh-Butterfield and Keys-Butterfield intersections into a system of dual multi-lane roundabouts.

The Lowlands route was most closely integrated with the existing roadway network, and the dual roundabout would be less expensive than construction in the other alternatives. But the route also had its challenges. The roundabout approach required a drop in speed limit to 25 mph, and the north-south segment separated Skyline Mobile home residents from the rest of the Terrace Heights neighborhood.

The consultants noted that all alternatives would have some level of impact on private properties. And in the end, the Lowlands alternative was clearly the best option, Leita said.

“We understand no one wants to move, to have their home disrupted, but there was no way in any of these alternatives that no one was going to be impacted,” Leita said. “This had the least amount of impact.”

The consultants tweaked the Lowlands route in a 2012 supplemental study so that the route would have less impact on the Yakima River, be more compatible for pedestrian and bicycle travel, relocate fewer developed properties, and reduce the segments of road with steep grades. The county will need to relocate three homeowners in the first phase and five homeowners in the second. 

Leita said there have been multiple opportunities for the public to weigh in on the project during the nearly 20 years that the project has been under discussion. During that time, he said he received little negative feedback from the community.

“The public needs to know that we didn’t just draw a line on a map. We have been very diligent in finalizing this corridor route,” he said. “We are where we are today because we heard a lot of support and from very few in opposition.”

The irony of the controversy over the current corridor route, Leita said, is that it still has “the least amount of impact.”

“It’s still unequivocally impacting a few,” he acknowledged. “But we need to look beyond today to our future community, which will be better off for this second corridor.”

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.