Chinook tunnel

The Chinook Tunnel in Pacific County runs under Fort Columbia State Park. There have been three car wrecks there in the last five years, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

CHINOOK — Leaders of a community organization are agitating for improved safety in the Chinook Tunnel.

The call for action comes from the Long Beach Grange No. 667.

Its master, Rick Haug, is seeking help from state leaders to pressure the Washington State Department of Transportation, which has authority for the tunnel which carries U.S. Highway 101 on its route north and south.

WSDOT noted that there have been three crashes inside the tunnel in the past five years.

Haug said the lack of adequate lighting, as well as an uncovered drainage system, make driving through the tunnel problematic. “It’s just dangerous,” he said. “It’s clearly in need of some improvements.”

WSDOT regional officials say tunnel lighting improvements are planned for 2030.

“There’s no doubt the lighting system in the tunnel is old,” wrote Kathryn Garcia-Stackpole, WSDOT communications consultant, in an email.

“Given the life cycle cost of roadway lighting and the associated environmental impacts, it is necessary for us to decide how to best use limited transportation funds to get the maximum life out of our existing infrastructure, while planning for the future.”

The department’s 10-year construction program has the tunnel lights in line to be replaced in 2030.

“The replacement project will install more energy efficient LED lighting, which can significantly reduce energy consumption,” she added. “While there’s a bigger up-front cost for installation, we see a longer-term benefit in lower cost to run the lights and maintain the system.”

Haug, on learning of the potential 10-year wait, had one simple reply: “That’s crazy.” He plans to contact state lawmakers to try to ramp up the pace.

The Grange, a family-focused rural fraternal organization that dates back to 1867, is nonpartisan, but has a legislative arm which lobbies state lawmakers and policymakers about agricultural and community priorities.

The state Grange was unable to hold its annual convention in 2020 because of covid-19 restrictions. But at a regional business meeting held on Zoom, neighboring Grays Harbor Grange members weighed in with support for Long Beach members’ concerns.

“Several people commented about the tunnel,” Haug said.

The WSDOT spokeswoman addressed the other issue that Haug’s group raised.

“We keep the drainage system in the tunnel uncovered to ensure they are functioning properly, with frequent cleaning with a Vactor truck — also known as mobile vacuum — that we use to remove water and debris to prevent it from backing up,” Garcia-Stackpole added.

The Chinook Tunnel is 799 feet long and 15 feet tall. The widely known landmark at the south end of Pacific County has a distinctive curved roof is a reminder that it was built as a railroad tunnel. The old highway used to go around the rocky area containing the tunnel on the Columbia River side. Historians have documented how the road was frequently washed out.

When the railroad ceased operations, the tunnel floor was paved inside and converted into a highway.

In the past three years, letters to the editor of the Observer have highlighted other residents’ concerns about what they perceive as the lack of adequate tunnel lighting.

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