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Courtesy of the WSDOT

The State Route 510 realignment phase 2 project is shown here in a map created by the Washington State Department of Transportation. Though it has been delayed, the project so far has avoided being cut after the state transportation budget reported shortfalls following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

An environmental reevaluation and the finding of a historically-sensitive site within the anticipated path of the State Route 510 bypass project has forced the Washington State Department of Transportation to delay the expected completion date by nearly two years.

Up until just recently, the $58.5 million project to connect State Route 510 at Cullens Road around downtown to 170th Street had been projected to be complete in late 2023. But that completion date was revised when the state agency got locked into an environmental review and after an old “hunter-gatherer” campsite was found.

“WSDOT is required under state and federal regulations to evaluate this project’s effects on the environment and neighboring communities,” wrote communications consultant Doug Adamson in an email. “Historic and cultural resource reviews are required on all WSDOT projects that include ground-disturbing activities or effects to historical or culturally sensitive areas. We were aware of recorded sites within the corridor before we started this process, and it was no surprise to find one site eligible for the national register.”

Adamson said they cannot share much more information at this stage due to the high level of sensitivity surrounding this process and out of respect to their partners. The state agency does plan to continue work on the project and hopes to get it complete as soon as possible.

“In summer 2023, WSDOT anticipates proceeding with construction on this project where crews will build the three remaining miles of SR510 between Cullens Road and 170th Street Southeast. We expect the work to be completed by early fall 2025,” Adamson also wrote.

The 510 bypass project is a long-awaited realignment of the current highway, which runs through downtown Yelm. The first phase, which opened to the public in October 2010, built out 1.2 miles of two-lane highway between Mud Run Road southeast and Cullens.

The second phase would build out the remaining highway to connect the east side of the city to State Route 507 near the Nisqually River crossing and divert traffic out of Yelm’s downtown corridor, which can get congested during rush hour or large traffic accidents on Interstate 5.

During large traffic accidents or widespread lane closures on the interstate, 510 serves as a major access point to the 507 Nisqually River bridge crossing.

“SR 510/Yelm Avenue is the main street through Yelm. Heavy traffic congestion has the potential to negatively affect emergency response times and economic vitality,” the project’s main page reads. “This project would improve travel times for regional traffic, reduce the volume of regional traffic in downtown Yelm, help reduce the potential for collisions on Yelm Avenue and provide a new non-motorized route for cyclists and pedestrians.”

WSDOT says it's currently in the process of a federally-required environmental assessment that is expected to wrap up this fall and will involve an update of the project’s base environmental assessment.

Competitive bidding for contracts will start early 2023 with construction expected to start that summer.

Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, a ranking member on the House Transportation Committee, told constituents at a 2nd Legislative District town hall on Monday, March 22, of the reported delays.

In an interview with the NVN a couple days later, Barkis said he was disappointed to hear that the project was being delayed and was surprised to learn that WSDOT had known beforehand of a culturally-sensitive site.

“If they're aware of it, why wasn’t that built into the contingency of the timeline?” Barkis asked. “I don’t ever remember being briefed on a culturally-sensitive site on the Yelm bypass.”

The delay of the second phase of the Yelm bypass comes amid a shortfall in the state’s transportation budget. The House Transportation Committee recently released a new $10 billion budget proposal, Barkis said, in an effort to address shortfalls caused mostly by the coronavirus recession.

Fortunately, Yelm bypass funding — as well as many other projects due to start construction soon that have been funded under the 2015 Connecting Washington plan — have been saved from those cuts.

Barkis said it was the committee’s intention to make sure those projects weren’t delayed or cut due to lack of revenue as the cost to fund those could see substantial increases if not done in a timely manner.

But there’s a similar worry with the delay of the bypass.

“The concern is that as this thing is delayed, maybe in the next biennium if we’re not seeing construction there could be opportunities for new costs,” Barkis said.

It’s not known yet what fiscal impact the delay may have on the project.

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