Most of us hardly give any thought to Interstate 82, except when there’s a crash, fire or high winds gumming up the traffic on the freeway.
But while we think of I-82 as almost a permanent part of the landscape, it was a project that started in the late 1950s and took nearly 30 years to build from Ellensburg to Hermiston, Ore. There were lawsuits and squabbles along the way.
In the 20th century, the main highway for getting from one end of the Yakima Valley to the other was U.S Highway 97, called by some today “the old highway.” It was part of a highway that ran from Oroville at the Canadian border south to Weed, Calif.
Yakima County’s stretch of the road ran across the Lower Valley, through the Union Gap and then the Yakima River Canyon.
In the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration proposed creating a system of superhighways throughout the country, part of his New Deal plans for getting the country back to work and out of the Great Depression. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938 called for a feasibility study of an interstate highway system, but the plan was shelved when America entered World War II.
But the idea of interstate highways would be taken up again in the 1950s. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the legislation that would create what is now the Interstate Highway System in 1956.
Eisenhower had a clear understanding of the benefits of a national system of good highways. In 1919, he led a military convoy on a cross-country trip and saw the poor state of America’s highways, and later, as supreme Allied commander in Europe, saw how Germany’s Autobahns made troop movements easier.
Ike’s plan called for constructing 41,000 miles of highways. Contrary to urban legend, there was no requirement that the roads also do double duty as emergency airstrips in time of war.
I-82 was the last of the three interstates built in the state. Interstate 5 provides north-south access along the west side of the state, while Interstate 90 created an east-west corridor linking Spokane and Seattle as part of the longest interstate highway in the nation.
Work began on I-82 in May 1959, with the plan to run the road from Ellensburg to the east of what is now the Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway. It would take 39 contracts totaling more than $44 million — or $391.3 million in today’s currency — for the segment running from Ellensburg to Union Gap.
The first contract was for the Selah interchange at the bridges over the Yakima and Naches rivers. But there were some controversies with the route. Truckers preferred going through the canyon to avoid potentially steep grades as the highway traversed ridges, while the U.S. Army was adamant that the road could not take property away from the Yakima Training Center.
I-82 skirts the training center’s west side. Cuts in the ridges ease, but don’t fully eliminate some of the grades.
The project also involved bridging the Selah Creek gorge with what was then the longest concrete arch span bridges in North America. On Nov. 12, 1971, the Fred G. Redmon Bridge, named for the former chairman of the state Transportation Commission, was dedicated.
That first segment of the freeway took 14 years to complete, wrapping up in 1975.
For the next segment, from Union Gap to Prosser, the state Department of Transportation faced challenges from growers who did not want the highway going through their orchards, as well as the Yakama Nation, which did not want the highway on its sovereign land.
The Yakama Nation’s lawsuit was successful, and the route was moved to the north bank of the Yakima River, outside the reservation. WSDOT also reached settlements with the other landowners, and was able to reach Prosser on Oct. 30, 1982. Eventually, it would go past the Tri-Cities, which connected to it via Interstate 182, before crossing the Columbia at Plymouth.
The final segment was finished in 1988 near Hermiston, connecting to Interstate 84.
The final price tag for the project was $370 million for 132 miles of highway. And the road has become a bit of an anomaly in the scheme of the highway’s numbering system.
Typically, even-numbered highways run east-west, and while one can argue that in one sense Ellensburg is “west” of Hermiston, the road does run more north to south.
It also violates the numbering rules because east-west highways are to be numbered in ascending order going from south to north. That’s because when I-82 was planned, I-84, which runs from near Brigham City, Utah, to Portland, was actually known as Interstate 80-N, but was subsequently renamed.