Backers of a North-central Washington highway and wildlife safety project are vowing to keep pushing for funding after coming tantalizingly close to scoring $18 million to build six critter underpasses and 11 miles of deer fencing along a deadly stretch of U.S. 97.
State representatives and senators had included the project – modeled to prevent up to 244 vehicle-deer collisions a year – in their proposed transportation budgets, but the full legislature was unable to agree on how to fund it and other roadwork around the state, leading to a “modest” final package that left them out for the time being.
“Without agreement from the state for a transportation projects spending package including Safe Passage 97, countless deer/vehicle collisions will continue to occur, with lives at stake. We are too close to doing something really positive for a rural community in Eastern Washington to let it slip away,” said Jay Kehne, the organization’s project manager, in a press release.
There’s been strong support from district lawmakers, local residents, hunting and conservation groups, the Colville Tribes, WSDOT and others to get the job done, and last year, privately funded efforts shored up a mile-long stretch by the Janis Bridge.
That work, which sits at the north end of the 11-mile unfunded section and included a renovated underbridge crossing, has shown a lot of promise and alone is expected to prevent 100 deer-car crashes a year.
But if the base problem on the ground in central Okanogan County is as simple as improving the intersection of busy north-south transportation and east-west mule deer migration corridors, in Olympia it’s a dizzying roundabout of climate policies, carbon emissions, roads and gas taxes.
According to Conservation Northwest, there’s a possibility the legislature will reconvene this summer to take another go at the issue. The organization termed it a “huge accomplishment” that full funding for the work on Highway 97 had gotten into transportation packages in the first place and said they would continue to “work with legislative champions to ensure this project remains a priority as elected officials.”