Mayor, county spar over highway

Heavy Haul talk highlights 10 point discussion

OKANOGAN – Tonasket Mayor Patrick Plumb wanted a chance to meet with the Okanogan County Commissioners.

He got that opportunity Monday, March 24, entering the commissioners’ chambers along with Tonasket City Council Member Scott Olson and Kurt Danison of Highands Associates, who serves as Tonasket’s (and other cities) city planner.

Plumb had submitted a 10-point agenda of discussion points to commissioners Jim DeTro, Ray Campbell and Sheilah Kennedy that included:

  • the contentious (but heretofore indirect) issue of running a Heavy Haul corridor from Oroville to Pateros on US-97 through downtown Tonasket;
  • discussion about “.09 funds” and communicating with other cities in the county that may have common interests on that issue;
  • transitional issues regarding areas newly-annexed into the City of Tonasket;
  • requesting a finalized airport plan for the Tonasket area;
  • issues with the Oakes Trailer Park/Johns Landing sewer system, which is operated by the city but is outside the city limits;
  • the possibility of discussing connecting the U.S. and Canadian rail lines near Oroville;
  • attempting to gain an easement so that a southerly access to Chief Tonasket Park could be opened;
  • strengthening the economic conditions of North Okanogan County;
  • getting the commissioners’ take on the potential creation of a parks and recreation district to fund the operation of the proposed Tonasket swimming pool;
  • and Plumb’s offer to support the county on any projects it might need support on.

The lengthiest discussion was, to no one’s surprise, regarding the Heavy Haul corridor designation. Though there wasn’t a consensus reached by the commissioners and the Tonasket representatives, there wasn’t much doubt where any of the parties stood after hashing over a number of aspects of the issue.

While the possibility of the designation occurring is uncertain, Plumb has been displeased that the county had sought the it without consulting the city of Tonasket since the highway runs through its downtown core. The condition of the underlying infrastructure, Plumb said, is inadequate for what a Heavy Haul Corridor would require.

Mayor Patrick Plumb
Mayor Patrick Plumb

“I caught wind through the media that this was going on and I was a bit taken aback by it,” Plumb said. “As some of you are aware there had been some talk it wouldn’t cost any money. I’d already had a city analysis done by our city engineer, Varela and Associates, and they said that it would cost about $5 million to fix the mile of roadway to bring it up to standard.”

He noted that the recent Third/Fifth/Sixth Street project to assess drainage issues in town had to stop more than 15 feet away from the highway, leaving drainage along the highway still a problem as well as costing the city an ADA wheelchair ramp.

“We were told … that if we touched that we would have to bring it all up to code,” Plumb said.

Danison recounted the history of the city’s attempts to have its US-97 issues addressed with the Washington Department of Transportation.

“Tonasket is especially sensitive to 97,” Danison said. “Fifteen years or so ago, they were promised by the DOT a grind and fill. The next time it was just to grind and fill the travel lanes … then it was a chip seal. The problem in Tonasket is there’s hardly any curb left. The DOT keeps telling Tonasket they need to apply for these programs and replace the ADA ramps and sidewalks. But how can we actually do that with any certainty if it’s (we don’t know) the right elevation? …

“So there is this junction of misunderstanding, lack of communication, and for Tonasket it becomes a much more serious problem than for any other city in the county.”

Danison did say that it was possible that the Heavy Haul Corridor might be the way for Tonasket to get the funding it needed to fix the highway.

“(That could be) a beneficial side to that,” he said. “There’s a much higher level of recognition to these issues … having the Heavy Haul at least out there, there is another reason out there to have Tonasket on the (state funding) list.”

“I know that you were upset because of the fact that you were not notified,” DeTro said. “But I take exception to that because you were at the school board meeting (in December) where Rep. (Joel) Kretz, Sen. (Brian) Dansel and I, all three, addressed this and pleaded with you to say it wasn’t our fault the DOT decided to chip seal. Maybe if you could help with this situation it might give you one more reason to fix your road.”

Plumb noted the DeTro also said at the time that the designation would not cost any money and that the highway through town was already falling apart, which could be worsened by heavier loads rolling through town.

“We just keep chip sealing,” Plumb said. “You said you would go with what the DOT said. And they did do an analysis … and specifically said the Tonasket infrastructure needs to be entirely redone.”

Campbell noted that the analysis was a preliminary one.

The other issue regarding the Heavy Haul Corridor was differing perspectives on whether or not it would harm the railroad.

Council member Olson said he felt Heavy Haul would hurt the existing railroad; DeTro said he thought it would actually help it.

Olson felt that businesses that switched from hauling their goods via truck instead of rail would make it more difficult for the businesses that still wanted to use the rail system.

“If they no longer have others using the railroad, it’s going to cost them a lot more to haul that stuff out,” Olson said. “Or, they’ll have to find a different way to haul it. I think the railroad is great infrastructure.”

“People in the tree fruit industry that are asking to have this done so they can bring their fruit out of Canada and process it at these warehouses in Okanogan County, it’s going to enhance job. The railroad will get more freight from those diversion points after the apples or cherries or whatever get to processing.

“There’s Chelan Fresh involved, Golddigger … several different entities regardless of whether they are owned by one company or not, does not diminish the fact that once they are processed they might be shipped by rail as well as truck. I’m not following how you say it will take jobs awa. It’s going to add jobs.”

Campbell also pointed out that a number of trucks coming from Canada end up dropping half their loads and end up making two trips back and forth to the border due to the current weight restrictions; he disagreed with Plumb that it would increase the amount of traffic flowing through Tonasket.

“I said it was my experience that Patrick, if everyone else in the room says the sun is shining, he’ll say it’s not.” DeTro said. “I’ve seen that in the Republican caucus. I know it’s for a purpose that you do that, but I’ve seen that.”

“I was elected by the city of Tonasket to do what’s best for my constituents,” Plumb said. “This road being in this condition is not good for our businesses or pedestrians in my city… I’m not partisan; you guys have ‘Rs’ behind your names. But when the rubber hits the road, I’m not afraid of saying no to anyone.”

Afters some further discussion, DeTro made a point of vocalizing his support for the railroad.

“I support the railroad wholeheartedly,” he said. “It’s a vital part of our infrastructure. I know the guys that are engineers. I don’t want to see the lose their jobs. I want more freight on there. It’s a misnomer that this will destroy the railroad .”

“None of us want to interfere with Tonasket’s ability to upgrade the highway,” Campbell added. “We want to support getting that done.”