With a road upgrading project continuing, some residents along Rattlesnake Road in Husum are raising questions about the project's costs and complaining about its impact on their rural lifestyle.
In an undertaking that started in late 2002, Rattlesnake Road and a stretch of Oak Ridge Road are being raised, widened, and repaved. Rattlesnake Road is being re-engineered from where it intersects with Oak Ridge Road to Staats Road, a distance of 4.14 miles.
Bjorn Hedges, assistant engineer with the Klickitat County Road Department, said the total cost of the widening and paving, including about a mile of Oak Ridge Road, is about $835,000.
"It's really a boondoggle," said Joan Schoen, who owns property along both sides of Rattlesnake Road. "What they are doing on this road is just a travesty. Basically, it's completely over-engineered. It's a rural road, with cattle grazing and horses up and down on the road."
According to Schoen, the roadbed is six feet higher than it used to be in some places.
"The road drops off six feet on either side," she explained. "There is no place to go if a car comes along. Our concern, number one, is safety. If a car slides off, that car is going to turn over and going to kill somebody. The road is completely unsafe."
Hedges conceded the road's profile had been altered significantly in areas.
"The road base is pretty high through there," he said. "It's designed for the amount of traffic and the type of traffic. There are design standards I have to follow. I didn't come up with the standards, but I have to meet them. Otherwise it could put the county in jeopardy in terms of liability."
According to County Commissioner Don Struck, the height of the roadbed was necessary to improve sight lines and create a smoother profile.
"Some dips we filled to bring the road height up, in some areas we added as much as five or six feet of fill. It will stay at that height so the road has a fairly flat grade," Struck explained.
Merriann Bell, another Rattlesnake Road resident, also questioned the project.
"They made this road into a superhighway," Bell said. "They put asphalt on that is a foot and a half thick, and it drops right off so you can never pull off the road. I walk every morning, but I won't walk now because there's so much truck traffic. It's like Grand Central out here."
Commissioner Struck said Rattlesnake Road is considered a "farm-to-market" road.
"Back in 1997, an advisory committee made up of farmers, ranchers, and timber producers prioritized roads based on a year-round ability to haul wheat and logs over what were then substandard county roads," Struck explained. "They help prioritize the roads that need to be upgraded. I think it makes perfect sense."
Struck said representatives from SDS Lumber Co., Champion, Longview Fiber, and the Washington Department of Natural Resources were among those on the road advisory committee. Every year, sections of the roads specified are upgraded to make it easier to get products to market.
"It's not being constructed for residents so much," added Hedges. "The commissioners are focused on creating and maintaining jobs in the county. One method to do that is to build all-weather roads, to get the best bang for the buck for being able to haul to mills and market year round."
Bell pointed out that the rural nature of the Rattlesnake Road is being altered by the reconfiguration of the road.
"One of the reasons we're out in the country is because we want to be left alone," Bell said. "This is such a lot of work, money, and resources that could be used elsewhere."
Schoen said the high road has restricted access to their property.
"We have property on both sides of the road, but there is no way we can drive in and out any more," she said. "We're denied access by a four or five foot berm."
Struck said the county had offered to move the Schoen's gate to another spot to make it easier for them to access their property.
"That's a standing offer," Struck said. "We always try to accommodate land owners."
Schoen said she had been a property owner along Rattlesnake Road for about 40 years.
"We were not asked about the road. We were told it was going to happen," she said. "It astounds me that a lumber company could have the county pay for it. Now they say they are not going to finish paving it because the money is tight and they have had so many complaints."
Due to cost overruns, some of the Rattlesnake Road paving has been dropped from the plans.
"In the original scope of the project, we were going to improve and pave up to Staats Road. The first phase cost more than anticipated, so we cut paving out of the last two miles on Rattlesnake Road," Hedges said.
Hedges pointed out that the work on Rattlesnake Road will serve to keep heavy truck traffic off Snowden Road.
"We had the option of improving and paving five miles of Oak Ridge and Rattlesnake, or 12 miles of Snowden Road," Hedges explained. "We're keeping trucks off Snowden Road, where there is a lot more traffic and pedestrians, for not even a quarter of the cost of getting Snowden up to snuff."
Schoen said she was not convinced the tradeoff was worthwhile.
"We are going to fight this," Schoen said.