News

Triangle highway project is still ringing hollow

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

Funding is a perennial question mark that hangs over many large public works projects, the Triangle road improvement project located in the southern part of Federal Way being no exception. And the completion of the project hinges on the availability of a limited supply of money.

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith (D-9th District) has requested federal grant funding for the project, and the Regional Transportation Investment District –– a local, tri-county taxing and transportation planning district –– still lists the project in the circle of those that will receive money if voters approve of the whole package this November.

“Finding the funding is by far the biggest hurdle,” city traffic engineer Rick Perez said.

Though dollar amounts are unknown, project planners are moving forward with preliminary designs and environmental work — drafting how the interchanges will look and asking for public input –– so when the money does come, the next phase is ready to go.

When all is said and done years from now, the Triangle convergence of Interstate 5 and State Routes 18 and 161 (Enchanted Parkway) will be reconfigured to relieve congestion, alleviate some of the backup at the South 348th Street and parkway intersection and decrease collisions between drivers who weave between each other to get off and on the ramps connecting the highways.

In January 2003, a design study came up with several alternatives to improve traffic flow and reduce the number of accidents at the Triangle. Those alternatives –– Concept A, Concept B and Concept B Modified, as well as a half-interchange at South 376th Street –– presented several arrangements of ramps, loops and flyovers to get drivers on and off the highways more easily.

After the study, Concept A appeared to be the favored option. With almost $3 million in state nickel tax funding and another $1 million from the federal government secured by Smith, the state Department of Transportation (DOT) selected Federal Way consulting firm Berger/ABAM to conduct an environmental assessment of the project.

Last June, DOT held a public open house to gather input on the alternatives. Based on comments, project planners came up with six more alternatives, bringing the total to 11. A technical advisory committee then narrowed the total to two: W3, similar to Concept B Modified, and W4, a new concept developed by the consulting firm.

Last week, a technical advisory group chose a preferred alternative. DOT project engineer Bruce Nebbitt couldn’t confirm which alternative, but he told the Federal Way City Council that W4 appeared to be the group’s preference.

Now that the group has chosen, Berger/ABAM will conduct a full environmental assessment on the preferred alternative to determine the impacts it will have, Nebbitt said.

Meanwhile, some preliminary engineering work also will be conducted. Nebbitt said the consultants will need to know where the roads will run in order to understand what impacts they’ll have.

“Those two kind of go hand-in-hand,” he said.

After the environmental assessment, DOT will need the Federal Highway Administration’s seal of approval on an access point decision report, which is the administration’s assurance the project won’t create havoc on the interstate system.

DOTn has the money to get to this point, but again, state and local officials will have to continue lobbying for the money to get to the next phase: Contract design, right-of-way acquisition and construction.

Finding the money has been an ongoing project in its own right. So far, the city and DOT have applied for $10 million each in federal funding.

Smith, whose constituency includes Federal Way, requested money for the Triangle project in a $283.9 billion federal transportation package called the Transportation Equity Act. The U.S. House transportation committee is expected to vote on it soon. Smith said he expects the committee will reauthorize the package without contention, which means the Triangle should get some amount of federal funding.

“It’s one of my top priorities,” he said.

At this point, he said, the challenge isn’t getting committee members to agree on funding for individual projects; it’s getting them to approve the whole package.

“We’re not directly competing with each other,” Smith said. “I’m somewhat optimistic.”

Locally, the Triangle project is still on the Regional Transportation Investment District’s list, though last year the district only recommended half of the $200 million requested for the project before deciding not to put a package on the November 2004 ballot.

So while the diagrams and outlines for the project are beginning to take shape, a construction date will be “entirely dependent on getting the money to build it,” Perez said. “Best case, it’ll be a year to complete environmental work, two years on design, and I’m not sure how much right-of-way will be by then. Construction will probably be $100 million.”

He said a start date “depends on how much money comes in all at one shot. People just don’t have $100 million pots of money laying around.”

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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