When walkers and cyclists on the Willapa Hills State Park Trail reach state Route 6 between Chehalis and Adna, they face a treacherous crossing at a low-visibility curve in the road where motorists often exceed the speed limit.
“It was really apparent that vehicles travel much faster than the speed limit there and sight distances are very limited because of weird vertical and horizontal curves,” said Michael Hankinson, parks planner with Washington State Parks. “Experientially, it was scary.”
Chris Brewer, president of Lewis County Community Trails and organizer of the annual Ride the Willapa event, said locals have long found the intersection to be a problem. For the trail ride, backers have had to bring in certified flaggers each year just to ensure participants get across the road safely.
“Personally, I hate the surface-level crossing,” Brewer said. “I don’t like trusting traffic to slow down or stop there. … There’s more and more people utilizing the trail, so there has to be some better solution.”
That solution is finally in sight, with nearly $5 million included in the proposed House capital budget to fund a trail bridge over the road. The bridge would not only fix the crossing’s safety issue — it would mark full completion of the Willapa Trail’s development in Lewis County.
“It’s really cool to see this, just in terms of the fact that this is the last critical piece of having a fully connected trail in Lewis County,” Brewer said. “I can’t state how big this would be to have this brought through to completion. It unlocks the potential of the trail.”
Hankinson said LCCT was a key partner in planning a solution to the crossing, helping State Parks understand the needs of users and neighbors, as well as bringing in community engagement. The agency also views the bridge as a potential milestone, he said.
“It ties it all together so that it’s seamless experience of this trail from Chehalis all the way out to what is called (mile) 27 (west of Pe Ell),” Hankinson said. “That’s a big deal. We are focusing our attention now beyond that to Pacific County, with the ultimate goal of linking Lewis and Pacific together within the next decade.”
The trail is slated to eventually connect Chehalis to South Bend, though much of the mileage in Pacific County is considered to be in “unimproved condition.”
At present, the intersection of trail and road features a crosswalk with warning lights to urge traffic to slow or stop when pedestrians are present. The effort to put in the crosswalk was spearheaded by LCCT, but Brewer said it was only a “stopgap” measure. Hankinson said it was important to find a more permanent solution, as both the trail and road are likely to see increased use in the coming years.
“Despite the fact that it’s a crosswalk, there’s still the potential for a pedestrian-vehicle conflict,” he said. “We needed to respond thinking long-term.”
Washington State Parks held a public meeting in November to solicit community input, drawing close to 45 participants. County commissioner Edna Fund, who attended as an interested citizen, compared that to the sparse turnout at many local government meetings, saying it showed how much people care about the trail.
“It’s nice to see community folks stepping up to the plate to come up with a resolution,” she said. “For them to have that many people come in and want to talk about it I thought that was wonderful.”
Brewer said LCCT was less concerned with the guiding the design of the bridge than ensuring neighbors and community members were on board with the structure. The group was pleasantly surprised, he said, by local receptiveness to the proposal.
“We said we were gonna defer to what the neighbors want,” he said. “We wanted the community to be comfortable with whatever was put on the table. … Anything that would have got us above the road suffices.”
State Parks started with 29 options for the crossing, Hankinson said, including a tunnel and moving the crossing to a different location. Ultimately, it was decided that a bridge would be the best solution, and six options were presented to the community. Feedback guided the agency toward a curved steel truss structure with a rustic look, keeping design consistency with other bridges on the trail and including a reference to Littell, the unincorporated community where the bridge will stand.
“This bridge will become a landmark in the community,” Hankinson said. “It needed to reflect what people wanted, because it’s reflecting their history. So that the design of the bridge echoes the history of the railroad bridge aesthetic. We’re going put Littell somewhere on the bridge.”
In February, the agency held a second meeting in Chehalis to share the design proposal. Design of the bridge was funded by previous legislative appropriations, and the work was done by Otak, a design and engineering firm that won awards for its work on two other bridges on the Willapa Trail.
Brewer said he’s been given no indication of whether the bridge will be included in the Senate’s capital budget, but he’s “optimistic” given the outpouring of local support for the project. LCCT’s board members have been writing to state senators urging their support.
“We were excited to see this in (Gov. Jay Inslee’s) budget, we’re excited to see it in the House budget,” Brewer said. “The fact that it’s made it this far is super exciting for us.”
If the project is approved by the Legislature, Hankinson expects it will be completed in 2 years — as long as there are no hiccups.
“The idea is that we would try to get this built by 2021, but that’s very ambitious,” he said. “That’s where we are right now if things go smoothly. ... This could be a 3-year project.”
For Fund, who has long been involved on local flooding issues, the Willapa Trail is chance to showcase the Chehalis River area in a better light — and hopefully bring tourists to the region. She’s hopeful the completed bridge will help with that.
“It’s a beautiful site,” she said. “It’s nice we can talk about the river and talk about tourism and enjoying the outdoors — talking about Lewis County on the positive side regarding the Chehalis River.