State promises concrete solution
August 28, 2008 · Updated 8:56 AM
Citizens question two-year delay for I-5 fix
MARYSVILLE It took more than two years, but safety critics are glad that concrete results are finally coming to the freeway median running through this growing community.
After defending and expanding the use of cable barriers in freeway medians to keep errant cars from crossing over to oncoming traffic, the Washington State Department of Transportation is bowing to the advice of an independent consultant and will install a concrete barrier on 10 miles of the northbound median of Interstate 5, at a cost of about $27 million.
A set of cable barriers installed last year on the southbound median will remain, as part of a belt and suspenders approach to stem a wave of crossover fatalities on the busy freeway.
Officials with WSDOT and the Washington State Patrol met with a handful of citizens at a July 6 public forum at Cedarcrest Middle School, where they discussed their response to the report by consultant Malcolm Ray, an engineering professor who has studied median barriers. Rays report said cable barriers are effective elsewhere but do not work in the Marysville area, where a combination of high speed and several on and off ramps create a deadly mix. All of the eight fatalities occurred when southbound vehicles crossed over the median.
Lakewood resident Billye Brooks-Sebastiani said it was clear to anyone who drives that stretch of freeway everyday that cables alone were not enough to solve the problem, but state engineers werent listening..
The leadership has dug in their heels, she said. As a citizen and a taxpayer Im extremely disappointed.
John Holschen of Bothell lost his 18-year-old daughter Megan in a crossover collision in December, 2004 and has pursued WSDOT doggedly to find a better solution, winning a $9 million court settlement in his daughters death. The state paid $2 million of that amount, the other drivers insurance company paid the remainder.
Its a long time coming from our point of view, Holschen told officials.
He said he hopes it wont take two-and-a-half years the next time WSDOT needs to make a change. He listened patiently as WSDOT officials explained how cable barriers work everywhere else in the state, where no other fatalities have occurred in crossover accidents where they were installed. He wants more research to be done.
Until we know why they fail here, we dont know if theyll fail elsewhere, Holschen said.
WSDOT assistant secretary John Conrad readily agreed, noting a mix of characteristics that played in the 19 crossover accidents in the last nine years. The state first installed the cable barriers in 1995 and noticed an immediate 38 percent reduction in crossover accidents.
These things are working in other areas of the state, Conrad said. Theres something different going on in this stretch of freeway.
Rays report noted that the cables in some places werent secured in their anchors as tightly as they should have been and WSDOT inspected and fixed them in March.
Other factors contributing to problems in the Marysville area include speeding, cars mixing from traffic lanes to and from on ramps and off ramps and several other factors, according to State Patrol Chief John Batiste who squarely put the finger on drivers, noting that almost 4,000 drivers were clocked at 90 mph in the first three months of this year. North of Arlington is where speed limits on I-5 rise to 70 mph, and two years ago that was dropped to 60 mph just north of Smokey Point.
It was not a good mix, Batiste said. This area is no longer a rural community, this is an urban setting,
Some people have yet to get the message, he added.
It isnt the barrier, its the driver, Batiste said. Speed is the cause of collisions in this 10-mile stretch.
WSP Sgt. Jerry Cooper investigated the last three fatal crossover accidents and noted all three involved southbound vehicles going at least 70 mph.
The fix will not be cheap. The $27 million cost is driven largely by the need for the state to build a drainage network for surface water and purchase additional land away from the state right-of-way to build a storm water detention pond. The freeway crosses several major waterways in the stretch, including Quilceda Creek and other tributaries to the Stillaguamish River.
Assistant regional administrator Dave McCormick said the department is looking at traffic volumes and interchange spacing as well, noting that more frequent on ramps require more intensive design work. That could stymie efforts by Marysville to add another on ramp in the Lakewood area or to build a new interchange somewhere around 152nd Street. More on ramps wont help, Batiste bluntly said, citing a mess in the Tacoma area where cars pile up in a domino effect from several adjacent access points.
Too many folks try to occupy too small of a footprint, Batiste said, adding that he would personally want to see the designs for any new access points in the stretch of freeway.
Of the 47 people present, only a half-dozen were citizens, the rest were WSP and WSDOT brass, as well as several officials from Marysville, including Mayor Dennis Kendall, city attorney Grant Weed and public works director and Everett City Councilman Paul Roberts. Several state representatives were on hand, including State Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, the chairwoman of the transportation committee. She called the meeting and pledged to find the money to pay for the work.
State Rep. John McCoy, D-38, defended the proposed solution and the WSDOT staff. He said state engineers have listened as they searched for a solution.
Theyve all been open for suggestions, McCoy said.