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Idle West Valley Highway section in ruins
Algona Mayor Dave Hill chuckles talking about the condition of the closed section of West Valley Highway.
Not that the indefinite closure of one of the main arterials through the Green River Valley is any laughing matter.
It's just that the condition of the road – closed since a Feb. 17 landslide brought down tons of dirt, mud and debris from the west valley ridge – is so utterly preposterous, given the deteriorating pavement, and the cracks and sinkholes more than 10 inches deep and 10 feet long.
"There is a grading system, called PCI, Paving Condition Index, and gravel roads rate higher than some of West Valley," Hill said. "It goes from zero to a hundred: brand new road is a hundred, a pasture is zero. Some of this road is nine or 10. Gravel is 11."
The scale, instituted by the Army Corps of Engineers, labels anything under 10 a failed road surface.
Although the road there is flat-out awful, not much has been done so far even to begin the process of reopening it.
The fault for that is a matter of history, funding difficulty and jurisdictions, Hill said.
"Technically. we (Algona) own half of the road," Hill said. "The other half is owned by the county. Our half has the sinkhole, and both halves have the landslide."
Hill explained that King County owns the southbound side of the road, whereas Algona claims the northbound side.
The road itself runs through Pacific, which owns the land on the east side of the road. Pacific's ownership of the road picks up at Third Avenue East and continues to the King-Pierce County line.
"In 1955 (Algona was originally) supposed to go all the way down to Third Avenue in Pacific, as it was drawn up," Hill said. "Pacific hurriedly annexed that property so Algona couldn't incorporate it. In the process, the boundary review board, which sets the city boundaries, left one lane of road that would have been in Algona if we had incorporated all that area. But once it was annexed by Pacific, we couldn't incorporate that. And it's been that way since 1955. We own that lane from there until Auburn starts."
The joint ownership of the road has made finding funding sources for repair a nightmare, Hill said.
"It's next to impossible to get anything done on the road," he said. "The county has no money, we don't have a lot of money, and you can't get grant money for half a road. So the county can't get money for their half through their normal sources, and the city can't get money for its half from any of the sources we'd normally raise money from."
According to Rochelle Ogershok, a spokesperson for the King County Department of Transportation, the key concern with West Valley right now is safety.
"King County's first goal is to keep people safe on the 1,500 miles of road and 180 bridges in unincorporated communities," he said. "When heavy rain and an unstable hillside caused a landslide to cover West Valley Highway in March, the County and City of Algona closed the road to traffic to keep residents safe.
Hill agrees, pointing out a near miss experienced by a driver whose car was hit by the February landslide while driving on West Valley. Although the driver was unhurt, Hill said, the incident was a chilling reminder of what could happen.
"We have to err on the site of safety," he said. "And right now with the sinkholes – we're not even sure we know were all of them are, to open the road we'd need to do a lot more studying and testing to make sure we know were they are – heaven forbid they are driving down that road and drop into a four-foot hole."
Any solution to repairing and reopening the road will likely have to come in the form of an agreement between King County and Algona, and possibly Pacific.
"We're in the middle of doing design from our city limits to Stewart Road on West Valley Highway," Pacific's interim Public Works Director Ken Barnett said. "They're done with the cultural resources portion of it, and now they can get in do the geo-tech and surveying. Once we get that we can go out for grants for construction. We'd like to partner with Algona and King County on that. It's makes it better to get grants when you've got three municipalities and combined agencies. The hope is that we can all three get together and get the work done on the whole stretch."
Hill said Algona's first choice would be for the road to revert to the county.
"...but the county won't take it, unless we rebuild it completely before we give it to them," Hill said. "We'd be happy to sponsor Pacific taking the road, but I don't think they are in any position financially to take it either. You're talking in the millions to rebuild it."
Hill added that he'd be more than happy, however, to work with Pacific and King County on a solution.
"We'd be happy to cooperate with them anyway we can if they can find some funding," Hill said. "We're in talks with King County on a regular basis. They're concerned because the hillside is still moving, and we're very worried about an Oso-type event. And that would be very bad."
Every year the Group Health Seattle-to-Portland Bicycle Classic winds it's way through the Green River Valley, using West Valley Highway as part of the 202-mile journey.
Not this year.
"They wanted us to temporarily open West Valley to let them through," Hill said. "But you could lose a bicycle in some of those sinkholes."
Instead the route will turn into Pacific at Ellingson, winding its way down Frontage Road to Third Avenue, where it will again join West Valley.