Anyone who’s lived on the Key Peninsula for a few months has probably heard the “suicide curves” mentioned—or at least has been delayed or detoured by a collision in the area. Also known as the Wauna curves, this last stretch of State Route 302 has seen its good share of cars in the ditch, overturned vehicles, and plenty of fenderbenders. Sadly, a life or two is lost once in a while.
|“The commuters drive way too fast, 50 to 60 miles per hour, so we do write quite a few tickets there when we have the chance”
–Washington State Patrol Trooper Johnny Alexander
The adjacent Purdy Spit is just as notorious for cars landing in the water, with two such accidents on the same day recently. The traffic congestion and safety problems were brought to the forefront the last couple of months, when local residents cited traffic as their primary concern with restoring the dilapidated historic Wauna post office. They have complained for years about the dangers, they said, but no one is listening.
“It’s a pretty dangerous stretch of road: It has several blinding curves, lots of driveways with limited sight and there is no shoulder — so when vehicles back down, they block the roadway,” said Washington State Patrol’s Trooper Johnny Alexander. “We’ve had quite a few head-on collisions this year.”
Last year, there were 70 collisions reported between mileposts 13 and 15 — approximately from the intersection of State Route 302 with Creviston Drive and the crosswalk at the end of the Purdy Spit. In 2001, two people died on that stretch. Some blame is shared by motorists, oblivious to the 30-40 mph speed limit.
A “town meeting” on April 6, at 7 p.m. at the Civic Center, will discuss traffic issues. Councilman Terry Lee, Sen. Bob Oke, and Reps. Pat Lantz and Lois McMahan are expected to attend. Call Nancy Lind at 884-3347 for details.
“The commuters drive way too fast, 50 to 60 miles per hour, so we do write quite a few tickets there when we have the chance,” Alexander said. The trend is certainly not unique. Speed is the No. 1 cause of accidents in all regions of the state, with 32.5 percent of accidents blamed on excessive speeds in the Olympic Region that includes Pierce County.
While the Wauna curves are one of the most dangerous areas in the county on this side of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, they impact the entire highway. Ask anyone who lives further down the road. “When anything happens on Purdy Spit…it blocks off Creviston,” a resident noted at a recent Wauna building meeting. “In one week I heard six wrecks. Come see what the jam does past the spit. It’s a long drive around.”
According to Washington Department of Transportation’s 1996 Washington State Highway Accidents report, the latest one available, the multiyear accident rate at milepost 15.85—near the Purdy intersection—was 3.4. Same report showed the rate on the Narrows Bridge, that poster child of traffic danger, at 1.6. Even the interchange area with Interstate 5, another area with frequent crashes, had an accident rate of 3.2. SR-302 called ‘not critical’ So with the obvious safety issues SR-302 has demonstrated for years, what would it take to see some improvements? After all, voters here, like everyone else, are contributing their 5-cent-a-gallon tax to fix roads.
The problem is that SR-302 is not considered a “highway of state significance,” which makes any state funding not impossible but certainly not likely. Even on the list of highways of regional significance, SR-302 is classified by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) as tier 3 of 3. Only tier 1 highways are recommended for mitigation—which usually refers to congestion.
“Unfortunately, (a road) becomes a priority when we have enough accidents or loss of life,” said Sen. Bob Oke, who represents Legislative District 26. “The Burley-Olalla Intersection has been that way for years.”
Oke has been pushing for the Burley-Olalla intersection fixes, with an overpass slated to be built in 2011 and funded with the “nickel tax.” Oke has introduced a bill to move completion to 2009, closer to completion of the second Narrows Bridge. The bill, approved by the Senate in February, had moved to the House.
It’s that planned overpass, along with the second bridge and the widening of State Route 16, that could bring even more challenges to the Key Peninsula’s overtaxed roads. “The new bridge will unlock the door to the Key Peninsula,” said Councilman Terry Lee.
The same view was echoed in 1992 by an SR-302 corridor study commissioned by the Legislature. “The population growth in the greater Puget Sound region has made the Peninsula a popular location for new developments. Its relatively large pool of underdeveloped land has attracted people looking for affordable land and homes…As this formerly rural region becomes more suburbanized, pressure on existing transportation facilitieswill continue to erode the level of service along SR-302,” the report stated.
The report made several suggestions for congestion mitigation, including constructing a preferred alternative in the long term. But that’s as far as it went. No further funding for the highway was earmarked, and as other priorities float to the top, SR-302 does not. Since Legislature often favors congestion priorities, and SR-302 has the lowest rated congestion — moderate — it’s easy to see why it could remain a low priority.
Improvements to the highway, including widening and several cross-section improvements, are outlined in the Washington State’s Highway System Plan for 2003-2022. But the plan is “unconstrained,” unprioritized. A summit of various agencies later this year will devise a constrained plan, which will identify projects likely to be funded in the next 20 years. “Having a study done is a major step,” said Vicki Steigner, assistant planning manager for WSDOT Olympic Region. “It’s a strategy at this point because it’s not funded yet…To rank it higher, the strategy is to work with legislators and the PSRC to make sure it’s a priority.”
According to Steigner, PSRC’s recommendations for prioritizing hold a lot of weight. But PSRC representatives say SR- 302 hasn’t been identified as a critical problem. What would it take to place it on the improvements map? PSRC’s regional strategy adviser, King Cusham, agrees that grass-roots efforts often succeed, and cites some examples. County, state and even federal elected officials do listen, he says, as long as there is a welldocumented case with merit.
Perhaps it’s not that no one is listening, as Wauna residents have complained. Perhaps they just aren’t loud enough.