Towns’ needs are different but center around Hwy 20
The mayors of Winthrop and Twisp took a rare opportunity to pitch their towns’ transportation needs to a state-level audience, including Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar, at a meeting last week.
Millar and the state’s Transportation Commission convened at TwispWorks on May 14 and heard presentations from Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody and Winthrop Mayor Sally Ranzau. As far as anyone on the commission knew, this was the first time it had ever met in Okanogan County.
On one level, the mayors described opposite transportation challenges to the commission, a body that makes policy and funding recommendations to the Legislature and governor. Ing-Moody, who presented first, said businesses in downtown Twisp don’t get to take full advantage of tourist traffic on Highway 20 because the business core is off the highway.
The town’s solution to this problem is in its 2017 Economic Revitalization Master Plan, which outlines construction projects intended to improve access from the highway to the downtown, and to enhance the appearance of entryways to the downtown, including Third Avenue and Twisp Avenue.
The improvements won’t come cheaply, and Twisp will rely on the state to bear most of the cost. A roundabout proposed for Highway 20 at Glover Street, to give one example, would cost about $2 million.
In Winthrop, on the other hand, the highway runs straight through the heart of downtown — or not straight through, to be more accurate — which is part of the problem, Ranzau told the commission.
Highway 20 makes a 90-degree turn at the four-way stop in the middle of downtown Winthrop. Ranzau said large trucks and horse trailers seem unable to stay in their lane as they turn in that intersection, which also tends to fill with pedestrian tourists this time of year.
Ideally, trucks just passing through would be detoured away from downtown, Ranzau said, but she recognized such a restriction “would be a really big stretch for a state highway.”
With Winthrop’s boardwalks and businesses pressed right up against the highway, the state has limited options for altering or expanding the road. Ranzau did ask the state to consider shifting the highway several feet, between Hotel Rio Vista and the Shafer Museum, to make room for a pedestrian path from downtown to the Spring Creek walking bridge and the Susie Stephens Trail.
“We are restricted as far as what we can do with our downtown area,” Ranzau said. “As a result, we are trying to become more of a walking community.”
State transportation money can be used for pedestrian improvements and trails. Millar told local officials the Department of Transportation has a new Active Transportation Division that focuses on pedestrians and bicyclists. Millar, for one, would like to see rural communities well represented in a new active transportation plan, to be completed by the end of the year, that will guide decisions about some of the items on Winthrop’s wish list, including trails and bike lanes.
Ing-Moody pointed out that both towns, and the Methow Valley School District, also want trails to connect Twisp and Winthrop.
State grants possible
Millar said a good source of funds for Twisp-to-Winthrop trails would be the Safe Routes to Schools program, given that the schools are located between the two towns.
Competition is strong for those grants. Safe Routes to Schools receives applications amounting to 10 times more funding than it has available to spend. But the Methow Valley would have a competitive application, Millar said.
No discussion of road safety in the valley would be complete without mentioning what has happened over the past five wildfire seasons.
“Every year this community has been under fire, literally,” since the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire, Ing-Moody said.
Roads were closed while evacuations were underway, and portions of Highway 153 at the south end of the valley slid into the Methow River during recent fires, Ing-Moody reminded the commissioners.
Since few if any cost-effective solutions exist for preventing these sorts of travel problems during wildfires, Ing-Moody told the transportation policy board to look into bolstering the valley’s communications network.
“Communications overlap with just about every part of our lives, and that’s no different in the transportation realm,” Ing-Moody said in an interview after the meeting. “I just wanted to remind them of that.”