A long-awaited solution to a dangerous crossing on the Willapa Hills Trail west of Chehalis is now in the works.
Contractors with Tapani Underground began site preparations this week at the junction with State Route 6 three miles west of Chehalis, moving earth and staging equipment for an expected year-long project to build an overpass over a dangerous section of road.
As a result of this work beginning, the trail has been closed between Cabe Road and Dieckman Road. In a news release issued September 22, Washington State Parks officials said the closure will last about one full year.
The $3.3 million overpass will give trail users safe passage over a section of road that has been a headache for cyclists, equestrians and those on foot for at least a decade. The trail crosses SR 6 as the highway curves, reducing sight lines for cyclists and drivers, and creating a hazardous crossing scenario. The overpass will solve this dilemma by elevating the trail over the road and eliminating the at-grade crossing.
Washington State Parks and the Lewis County Community Trails Association jointly held two public meetings in late 2018 and early 2019, asking for public input on the idea of an overpass. Feedback from the public was generally positive, and those in attendance weighed in on the design and aesthetics of the structure.
Initial cost estimates for the project came in at about $5 million; however, in recent months, that has been revised downward, with Tapani of Battle Ground winning the low bid of $3.3 million earlier this year.
A PERMANENT SOLUTION TO A PERSISTENT PROBLEM
Ever since the trail has been in use for the best part of the past decade, the biggest safety issue along the WHT corridor has been the at-grade crossing at an area known as Littell, three miles west of Chehalis.
Once a station for the Northern Pacific Railway, Littell is known today as a place where three transportation corridors meet: State Route 6, Stearns Road, and the Willapa Hills Trail. As the site stands now, SR6 and Stearns Road connect at a curve, while the Willapa Hills Trail maintains a straight line through the area.
As such, sight lines are poor for trail users, especially westbound. Trees adjacent to the eastbound lanes of SR 6 make it near impossible for westbound travelers to see traffic until they approach the shoulder.
Although signage recommends 35 miles per hour around the curve, traffic is known through this area to blow past at the full 55 miles per hour speed limit in the area.
The Washington State Department of Transportation addressed concerns in 2018 about the trail/road conflict by installing bollards to separate the lanes of travel, with the goal of getting drivers to slow down around the curve. Crews installed flashing lights that can be activated by trail users as they approach the road.
However, this measure has been seen as a stopgap solution to something more that is needed, and after a period of advocacy from trail users and the LCCTA, State Parks joined in the chorus — bringing support for an overpass to an all-time high.
GETTING CREATIVE TO GET THE JOB DONE
With the consensus about the necessity of an overpass at Littell having been reached, the real work began. What will the overpass look like, and how exactly is it going to work given the unique challenges of a major curve, intersection with a local road, and adjacent private property?
These details were the focus of public meetings jointly hosted by Washington State Parks and the Lewis County Community Trails Association.
The first, held in late 2018 at Adna Junior/Senior High School, aimed to bring together Parks staff, those who owned homes and property in the proposed project area, and trail advocates. In this meeting, initial details of a proposed overpass were unveiled, with details such as aesthetics and design being influenced by property owners who asked for as natural a look as possible for the structure.
In the second meeting, held at the Veterans Memorial Museum in Chehalis, an open house style format allowed for people to mingle and talk with State Parks staff and LCCT committee members. A design was unveiled that took previous feedback into account, and incorporated public recommendations on a natural look to the structure.
To deal with the curve of the highway and stay within Parks right-of-way, the bridge will include slight curves on both sides — which will act as a natural way to encourage trail users, especially cyclists, to slow down. On one end of the overpass, a small overlook will be built that will provide a view of Mount Rainier off to the east.
Initial work on the area so far has included raising power lines along Stearns Road to accommodate the 17-foot height of the structure, and clearing earth to make way for giant earthen ramps to be created. Those ramps will have to settle for months before any construction on the overpass itself can begin.
Trees and native plants will be planted in the project area to better tie the structure to the surrounding environment visually.
HOW TO GET AROUND FOR NOW
State Parks has made it clear that there is no safe detour around the construction area, and I generally tend to agree with this.
However, experienced cyclists can try to use Highway 603 to Twin Oaks Road, and take Twin Oaks for its length back to SR 6. You’ll have to use the shoulder of SR 6 and then turn left onto Bunker Creek Road, then head to Dieckman Road and arrive at the Adna Trailhead.
This detour is for experienced cyclists only and is not generally recommended — however I do this route regularly without trouble at non-peak traffic times.
The easiest and best way for now, however, is to simply start your journey in Adna. Two Discover Pass lots are right alongside the trail on Dieckman Road, and extra parking is available at Back Memorial Park nearby.
For more project information, visit Washington State Parks’ website.
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR THE FUTURE
Once the overpass is completed, it will unlock more than 30 miles of consecutive trail between Chehalis and far eastern Pacific County — with the attractive benefit of this corridor being car-free and separated from traffic.
The Willapa Hills Trail is part of the Cross-State Trail project that aims to link the Willapa Hills Trail and the Palouse to Cascades Trail, and this overpass over SR 6 will eliminate one the single most dangerous part of the trail that has acted as a barrier to people wanting to use this section for years.