This week, the Bingen City Council will consider whether to send a letter of support for a proposal to repave a stretch of road that would allow visitors at the Mt. St. Helens National Monument to continue south to Trout Lake or Carson.
If the council votes to support the request, it will provide a bit more ammunition to proponents of the new link. Proponents contend the loss of that road access is hampering opportunities for increased tourism in the Columbia River Gorge area from the north, and from Mt. St. Helens in particular. Part of that road was buried and never replaced when the mountain blew in the volcanic eruption of 1980.
A Longview consultant, Van Youngquist, is a key proponent of the highway extension that would connect the Mt. St. Helens area with western Klickitat County via State Route 504.
"It would make a connection for a west end loop, and opens up everything from all sides of the mountain," Youngquist explained.
Youngquist, a former Cowlitz County Commissioner, is mounting an effort to gain support from communities that could see economic benefits from a new road. According to Youngquist, what is being called the "Windy Ridge option" would allow tourists "to loop Mt. St. Helens and connect to other destinations such as Mt. Rainier, the Columbia Gorge, Mt. Adams, and eastern Washington."
The "Windy Ridge" plan, which would require seven new miles of highway to be built, has an estimated price tag of $18.5 million. The new pavement would generally follow the route of the old state highway in place before the eruption.
It would run from Coldwater Lake -- near what is now the dead end of the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway -- and Windy Ridge. Windy Ridge is connected to Forest Service Road 99, which in turn connects with Forest Service Road 25, the main north-south road between Randle and Carson.
"At Forest Service Road 90, they can branch off to Trout Lake or Carson," Youngquist said.
Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel offered conditional support for the project.
"I would support a road through the monument for recreational purposes, but I would not support a major thoroughfare," Prigel said. "The latest proposal is to simply connect where there was a road through before the mountain blew. Basically they would be re-creating an existing road, and keeping it to minimal standards. But I wouldn't want to significantly boost traffic through there."
Prigel added that, since the proposal calls for routing through the national monument and the blast zone, there would be some environmental concerns.
"I wouldn't particularly want to build anything to highway standards. That would boost commercial or travel traffic through the national forest, and that would be detrimental to the quality of life," Prigel said. "The economic benefits would not outweigh drawbacks to that type of road."
Youngquist said many visitors to the volcanic area want to continue south.
"Mt. Adams is a mountain a lot of people want to see, but they can't get through past Johnson Ridge. It's 52 miles back to Interstate 5. And we know there are a lot of tourists at the local chambers of commerce [in Klickitat and Skamania counties] who have stopped and asked how to get to the Mt. St. Helens Visitor's Center. They are told they have to go all the way around [via I-5] to do that."
The new road would be seasonal in nature, probably remaining open to traffic from May 1 through Nov. 1.
To help pay for construction and maintenance costs of the new roadway, a toll of $2 or $2.50 per vehicle is envisioned for those using the new route.
"If the councils pass the letters of support, those letters will go to the various congressional delegations to demonstrate regional support," he said.
White Salmon Mayor Roger Holen said he backs the proposal.
"It isn't very convenient as it is," said Holen. "If you go to the visitor's center on SR 12, you can't continue to Trout Lake or White Salmon and Bingen. The plan is to extend that road and pave it. Some sections are completely out, destroyed during the volcanic eruption."
An SR 504 Extension Feasibility Study was completed in April 2001 with funding from the state Legislature, the U.S. Forest Service, the Federal Highway Administration, and several of the counties involved.
Klickitat County and Skamania County are listed as active partners in support of the project, along with Yakima and Lewis counties.
Youngquist said he expected to be in Goldendale within the next month to update the Board of Commissioners on the process.
Youngquist said the next step is to obtain funding to pay for several studies needed before any road can be built.
"We need an updated traffic count, an economic analysis to tell us what the benefit is to communities around the mountain, an environmental impact study, and a preliminary engineering study to show ways to lessen any environment problems," he explained.
Youngquist added that the traffic study and economic study could be done in a year, the EIS could take a year or two, and construction itself could take another year.
"If the studies don't show it's worthwhile, we won't pursue it," he pointed out. "We can't make a decision to build until the studies are in hand."