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Meeting on Highway 2-Colbert Road intersection draws crowd: Officials promise options for crossing, but cite affordability

By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

Well over 200 people packed into a standing-room-only meeting with the Washington Department of Transportation last week at Mountainside Middle School after a recent series of crashes at the intersection of U.S. Highway 2 and Colbert Road.

Three crashes occurred in quick succession in early October. “When the three crashes occurred a few weeks ago, the phone started ringing,” said Larry Larson, DOT assistant regional administrator.

Residents presented DOT with a petition with more than 2,000 signatures demanding a traffic light or roundabout at the intersection. Several people also argued passionately for lower speed limits in the area during the meeting, which occasionally got heated.

Larson said the department looks at the number and severity of accidents at an intersection before deciding what projects to spend its limited budget on. The Highway 2-Colbert Road intersection had 16 crashes from 2013 to 2017, putting it far down the list. The top intersection on the list, with more than 80 crashes, is Highway 2 and Hayford Road.

“It will be a long time before we see enough crashes to bring it higher on the list,” Larson said. “There is a lot more need than there is available dollars.”

The DOT cannot afford to put in a traffic light there, and it likely wouldn’t be effective, Larson said. In fact, he said, it might lead to an increase in accidents, particularly high-speed rear-end collisions.

“They’re not the panacea of safety we all think they are,” he said of traffic lights. “I don’t ever see us putting a signal in this intersection. There’s just too much risk.”

The DOT prefers roundabouts, which are safer, but doesn’t have the millions of dollars to put one in. “It just comes down to money,” he said.

Most of the accidents occur at the “conflict points” where cars are turning left either across the highway or to enter the highway, Larson said. There is also traffic on Colbert Road attempting to cross all four lanes of the highway.

The intersection has been improved with flashing lights that alert highway drivers when there is traffic approaching the intersection from Colbert Road, Larson said. In recent years, housing and a school have been built near the intersection, which created more traffic on Colbert Road.

“Thirty years ago when you paid for a highway, it worked pretty well,” he said.

Many people at the meeting were vocal in their desire for lowering the speed limit near the intersection from 60 miles per hour to 45. But both Larson and Washington State Patrol Capt. Jeff Otis said that likely would not be effective.

“If we lower it to 45 and don’t make changes to the road, we’ll have people driving different speeds,” said Otis. “I understand what you’re saying, but that’s the reality.”

Larson said the highway at that intersection was designed to accommodate speeds up to 70 miles per hour. Sections of Highway 2 farther south with a speed limit of 45 had curves and other features added to slow traffic. “Before we changed the speed to 45, we changed the roadway,” Larson said. “You can’t just change the speed limit.”

One resident asked if the speed limit could be lowered before installing photo speed limit signs to ticket speeders, a suggestion that brought applause from the crowd.

“It is illegal for the DOT to put a ticket speed device on a state highway,” Larson said. “It’s not an option for us. It’s state law.”

The simplest and cheapest way to improve the intersection is to remove left turns, Larson said. “Your numbers will go down but you’ll have to live with the fact that it won’t be as convenient to go where you want to go,” he said.

At least one person was vocally against the idea, but others said they could live with it, though they were concerned about shifting the traffic burden to nearby intersections. Larson said the DOT could study that issue further.

Larson recommended considering a “Michigan turn” or “J turn” intersection design that essentially creates U-turn routes to eliminate conflict points between traffic going in different directions. It could be done much more cheaply than a roundabout.

“This is the kind of solution that really does work,” he said. “You’re just not used to seeing them.”

Larson said the DOT would put together several lower-cost options for changing the intersection and bring them back to the community at another meeting. “This is a conversation,” he said. “We want to keep this going.”

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