The city of Yelm is applying for funding to update the road system that will eventually connect the Yelm Loop, commonly referred to as the “Yelm bypass,” to the state transportation system.
Yelm must complete the projects, which include an overhaul of Wilkensen Road, in order for the Yelm Loop to be a success, said Cody Colt, the public services director for Yelm.
“One of the biggest things the city has done to help the loop is we’re working on our … transportation plans for those connecting roads,” Colt said. “We’ll be actually going in and applying for funding to actually update those roads, so when the loop is finished, when someone pulls off, they’ll pull off into a new road that’s constructed up to standards.”
Colt said the roads are “definitely not up to par. We’re working on that now and just kind of forward-thinking to get those roads done.”
The loop is scheduled to be completed in 2025. The Washington State Department of Transportation recently launched an online open house for the project’s environmental review.
The loop is designed to be an arterial that redirects state traffic from the busy Yelm Avenue. It will span from the roundabout northwest of Yelm on Highway 510, past Cullens Road near Yelm Prairie, over Yelm Creek and beyond to Wilkensen Road, which connects to Highway 507 south of Yelm.
“This project actually started back in the late 1990s,” said Grant Beck, with Yelm city planning. “The city funded and did what is called a corridor study to see what it would look like to get the regional … traffic off of Yelm Avenue. The study looked at two publicly-funded loops in our connections.”
The first one, from the roundabout northwest of Yelm on Highway 510 to Cullens Road has already been completed, but the second, from Cullens to Wilkensen, is still a work in progress. A planned roundabout will be placed next to Walmart on Wilkensen in order to connect the road to Highway 507.
Beck was quick to point out the city’s successes in regard to the project. Beck said he worked with former mayor Adam Rivas back in 2002 to set up a meeting with state representatives after legislative districts changed so they could educate new lawmakers on the project.
“At that point, we had gone through the corridor study. … They really latched on to that project and championed it at the state Legislature,” Beck said.
The initial funding for the first part of the loop came in the early 2000s. The state then began its design process, identifying the corridor and the right-of-way needs for the project.
Soon after, the state began to purchase the right-of-way.
“The city has worked with the state over the years whenever there’s a development to make sure that we’ve protected the right-of-way, so we minimized the amount of new lots or homes that would have to be purchased,” Beck said. “But a number of lots, or homes, did need to be purchased through the process.”
The city of Yelm’s work on the right-of-way was instrumental in the construction of the first part of the loop, he said.
“The bottom line is that it was so successful (in helping) the state produce right-of-way acquisition costs that they were able to construct stage one with the money that was allocated for design,” Beck said. “So that was mutually successful and we added the roundabout out to Cullens Road just before you get to Yelm Prairie.”
The funding for the remaining part, estimated at about $54 million, was secured by the state through gas transportation packages like taxes, projects and initiatives in the Legislature.
By 2019, the Legislature slated the initial design work for the rest of the loop, but the construction funding was pushed out to the 2024-25 year.
The city of Yelm wouldn’t let that stand, Beck said, so it worked with its legislative members to get enough money to move forward with the entire design process, updating the environmental information and moving up the construction funding to 2022.
However, there have been several issues and delays to the project since the time of that victory, all of which were out of Yelm’s control.
First, the Mazama pocket gopher was classified as an endangered species, which caused the city and the state to rethink the environmental review, with Yelm making plans to create a conservation area for the critter.
Then, project managers found an archeological site near the loop’s planned progression, which caused further design obstacles.
Both of the issues have since been addressed through the state’s online open house.
Finally, COVID-19-related shutdowns pushed construction funding out to 2023 because Gov. Jay Inslee put a moratorium on any new contracts not specifically approved by his office as one of his first official responses to the pandemic, Beck said.
“We continued with the final design and environmental update, but the construction funding couldn’t be released for the contract to continue,” he said. “That moved the entire thing, the construction, back to 2023 with a proposed end date of 2025. That’s the schedule at this point. So we got it pushed up, but it’s moved back because of COVID.”