West Whitman Drive cuts through wide-open fields, connecting the city of College Place with Whitman Mission National Historic Site. Just west of campus, the two-way road lacks sidewalks and bike lanes, forcing motorists, bicyclists, and joggers to stay on high alert. After several years of community discussion about the dangerous stretch of road, Walla Walla County recently secured the funds necessary to build a shared-use pathway and bicycle lanes in each direction.
In February 2015, Walla Walla University sophomore Madison Baird was riding her bike westbound on West Whitman Drive when she was fatally wounded by a passing truck. Community concerns grew in the wake of the accident, prompting the county to take a deeper look into the existing infrastructure. “Whenever we have a serious accident on a road, we look at that area to see if safety improvements are needed and potentially move that project to the top of the list,” said Seth Walker, interim assistant chief of engineering and construction for Walla Walla County Public Works.
The county concluded that pathways should be constructed to improve safety in the area, but that was just the beginning of a long and tricky process. WWU owns a large portion of the land surrounding West Whitman Drive and leases it out to wheat farmers. Walla Walla County asked WWU to grant an easement of property, which would give the county permission to build on the university’s land.
“We had to take it through our committee system here—Master Planning, the cabinet, the board—but at every level, there was strong support that this was going to be a real benefit to campus,” said Steve Rose, WWU vice president for financial administration. “This is something we’ve wanted for a long time.” In 2016, WWU gave Walla Walla County permission to move forward with the project on their property.
Still, the county would need $1.95 million set aside before surveying and construction could begin. After several members of the community expressed the desire for safety improvements along Whitman Drive, the Washington State Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Program awarded over $1.3 million to see the project through.
With funding squared away, county residents can expect to see progress in the near future. The 12-foot-wide, multi-use path will run parallel to West Whitman Drive from the edge of College Place to Last Chance Road. The street will also be widened in that area to include a buffered bicycle lane on each side. Walla Walla County hopes to finish design work and right-of-way acquisition this spring. The current plan slates construction to begin in the summer of 2018.
Posted Nov. 17, 2017