Chehalis-area leaders are opposing a series of proposed projects designed to keep Interstate 5 from flooding, believing that if the state focuses on protecting the freeway, there will be no help for people who reside in the Chehalis River basin.

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CENTRALIA — Local leaders are opposing a series of proposed projects designed to keep Interstate 5 from flooding, believing that if the state focuses on protecting the freeway, there will be no help for people who reside in the Chehalis River basin.

The proposals were developed by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), at the request of the Legislature, to examine alternatives for protecting Interstate 5 and the Chehalis-Centralia Airport, and improving access to medical and other critical facilities during floods.

Bart Gernhart, the assistant regional administrator for engineering for the WSDOT, presented the report at a meeting last week in Chehalis.

“This stuff’s really important to you, to your livelihoods, to the people who drive up and down the freeway,” he told the group of more than 50 people in attendance, who included Republican state Sen. Dan Swecker and Jon Haugen, the Democratic candidate in the 3rd Congressional District. “It’s a matter of life and death in some ways.”

Gernhart said the project alternatives are still only in the beginning stages of development.

The report says that the WSDOT has done only a limited amount of design work to evaluate the individual approaches, and more effort would be needed to refine and evaluate them should the Legislature or others choose to pursue them.

Six primary project alternatives were evaluated; of those six, two — building a viaduct and relocating I-5 — were determined impractical because of costs, flood elevations and impacts to existing structures and the natural environment.

Others include building miles of levees and walls along I-5, raising the interstate and widening it from four to six lanes, and building temporary bypass lanes or new express lanes that would be protected from flooding. The proposals range in cost from $70 million to $550 million.

Local leaders, including those who serve on the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority, have expressed opposition since long before the draft report was released.

Chehalis City Manager Merlin MacReynold said the City Council is opposed to each alternative.

“The council has taken a longstanding position that it has to be a basinwide solution,” MacReynold said. “How any one of these fits in is very critical. The City Council of Chehalis is very consistent; none of these are viable options as individual or together without a basinwide solution.”

Centralia City Councilor Edna Fund said her council also is opposed and believes a basinwide solution is necessary.

“It’s tough to be in favor of one of them or any of them because you have to put them in combination with something else,” she said.

Fund said I-5 should be just one piece of the puzzle of flood mitigation.

During a two-day flood policy workshop in June, policymakers around the basin were tasked with evaluating several proposed flood-mitigation projects. Those policymakers, including Lewis County Commissioner Ron Averill, were almost unanimously against the WSDOT projects.

“A plan which protects the freeway and ignores the people is not acceptable,” Averill said last week.

Averill and other local leaders, including J. Vander Stoep, who serves on the Flood Authority as an alternate representative for Pe Ell, said they would support pieces of the WSDOT proposal only if a dam were also built on the Chehalis River.

“If they proceeded with any of those six alternatives and build it, then the discussion of funding from WSDOT or the federal Department of Transportation will be over,” he said. “Everybody else in the basin will be left in the same or worse position than when we started.”

Recently Vander Stoep was selected by the governor’s office to serve on a group responsible with recommending a suite of packages the governor can consider for funding in her last capital-budget proposal.

Vander Stoep couldn’t say how the report will affect the group’s decisions, other than that members have more information with which to work.

“Only time will tell,” he said.