More than highways: WSDOT Local Programs supports community vitality

by guest blogger Abbi Russell

There’s a ton of construction on Washington highways this summer, and when driving through work zone after work zone, it’s easy to assume that we are all about building roads. While our main priority is to invest in the highway system to keep drivers safe and moving, we have other projects that may not be directly connected to a state highway, but have tangible benefits that go way beyond moving drivers from point A to point B.

We help bring those benefits to communities through our Local Programs department. Local Programs provides educational, technical and financial support to help local customers achieve their transportation goals. Projects currently under construction in southwest Washington include a downtown revitalization project in Castle Rock and an interpretive center in Morton.

Local Program and City employees in Castle Rock
Both of these projects received grants through Local Programs, and the agencies in charge (the City of Castle Rock and the Cowlitz River Valley Historical Society, respectively) get continual assistance from Local Programs staff as the projects unfold.

The town of Castle Rock is located along state routes 411 and 504 in central Cowlitz County. The town is home to about 2,000 people, and its main sources of commerce are I-5 drivers, recreational traffic and sightseers headed to and from Mount St. Helens. But the City has a vision for the future – making Castle Rock a place “where past, present and future come together.” To that end, they are revitalizing their historic downtown core with a little help from us.

Local Programs helped the City secure $859,000 in funding for the reconstruction of Cowlitz Street West, the main downtown drag. The project updates the road and underground utilities, and highlights the area’s iconic mid-twentieth century storefronts. The new stamped concrete sidewalk resembles rough wood planks and recalls Castle Rock’s frontier and timber days.

Business continues in the downtown core as excavators rumble past. Over a fantastic lunch at Lacey Rha Café, Castle Rock Mayor Paul Helenberg and Public Works Director Dave Vorse related the project as “a grassroots effort from the downtown businesses to rework [the city’s] identity.” Though the work affects business, owners are generally patient and grateful in the knowledge that the end result is worth the present pain.

An hour northeast in Morton, construction work is less invasive but just as obvious in this small mountain town of just over 1,000 people. Morton was once a timber and mining hot spot, and that meant a lot of train traffic to move logs and ore from source to mill. Inactive railroad tracks still run through the east side of town, giving mute testament to the thousands of trains that passed through the area during its heyday.

Morton’s “Milwaukee style” railroad station was built in 1910 and is the only one of its kind left standing today. It was moved from its original location in 2005 and is being restored to its early twentieth-century glory by the Cowlitz River Valley Historical Society (warning, turn your speakers down before entering this site, it's very musical), which plans to make the building into a train museum.

The station sits just off of SR 7 and SR 508, and the society is working with the White Pass Scenic Byway to make the site a rest stop for travelers. In order to tie all this together and bring it to fruition, our Local Programs provided a $375,000 grant to build an interpretive center and restroom facility adjacent to the depot.

The wooden “shell” of the interpretive center is currently under construction, and the restrooms are due to be delivered later this summer. Instead of building a traditional facility, we are trying something new: a pre-cast concrete building with six restrooms. This style of building is a first for us, and a great opportunity to “test out low-cost improvements…in the interest of both driver safety and historical significance,” said Safety Rest Area Program Manager Maurice Perigo, who is overseeing construction.

So it may sound odd coming from an agency once known as the “highway department,” but take a drive off the beaten path every once in a while and visit some of the great sights along our state’s byways. You might just come across some unexpected surprises, thanks to the dedication and vision of our local partners, and our commitment to supporting the vitality of Washington State communities.