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State has plan for highway

By Kevin Hanson-The Courier-Herald

The state's Department of Transportation has looked at a busy rural intersection, determined something must be done to improve safety for motorists and arrived at a conclusion that might leave some shaking their heads.

The intersection in question is where state Route 169 in bisected by 416th Street Southeast and the DOT's desire is to construct a “roundabout,” an increasingly popular tool aimed at slowing motorists without causing them to stop entirely. Roundabouts involve placing a circle of land in the middle of an intersection, causing vehicles to slowly enter and exit the traffic flow.

Among those questioning the DOT's logic is State Sen. Pam Roach, whose 31st Legislative District includes the rural area just north of Enumclaw, where the roundabout is proposed. Roach has a proven ability to rally the public, has already spoken with at least one neighboring property owner and vows to tell the DOT what she thinks of their plan

In short, she's not impressed.

State Route 169 is the highway that stretches from Enumclaw on the south, runs directly through Black Diamond and concludes in Renton. The intersection with 416th is not far from Enumclaw's northern city limits, just a short distance from Thunder Mountain Middle School.

According to the DOT, the intersection carries approximately 11,500 vehicles each day. Traffic is unimpeded on the highway, while drivers on 416th must yield to their north-south counterparts.

The project engineer for the roundabout is Mehrdad Moini, who works out of DOT's Shoreline office. He said the state first looked at doing something because the intersection had been identified as a “high accident location.” He said there have been 18 collisions during the past five years and a dozen of those resulted in injury to drivers or their passengers. There were no fatalities during the five-year span, he said, but a woman was paralyzed during a 2006 crash.

Before settling on a roundabout, Moini said, DOT considered adding turn lanes or installing a traffic light.

A DOT analysis “clearly showed the roundabout is the preferred option,” Moini said.

Defending the DOT's findings, Moini said roundabouts eliminate the possibility of dramatic T-bone collisions that are most likely to result in serious injury. Roundabouts also reduce the likelihood of rear-end collisions because drivers have to slow down but generally are not forced to stop, he added.

The 169/416th roundabout has been on the DOT docket for some time, but was largely unknown outside the department. Moini said funding for the project was made available by the 5 cent gas tax increase of 2005. The project has already gone through the planning stage and is now in the design phase.

Aside from disagreeing with the basic concept, Roach is unhappy that so much has happened outside public view. She is not pleased that DOT spent time and money on design work without taking the proposal to the public.

She expresses a concern that a roundabout will do its job in an area frequented by “logging trucks and horse trailers.”

The DOT Web site addresses this potential trouble spot, noting that the two-lane roundabout, as proposed, “would be large enough to accommodate large semi-trucks.”

The public will have an opportunity to comment on the roundabout plan during the latter half of April, Moini said. A meeting will be at Thunder Mountain Middle School, but a date has not been confirmed. Roach is asking that the meeting take place following the end of the legislative session, so all three 31st District lawmakers have the opportunity to attend.

Moini admits the project has been generating some negative feelings but, for now, it's on track. “If the engineer's decision prevails, this is the option we prefer,” he said.

At the same time, he acknowledges that political pressures could come into play.

Moini said DOT's schedule for the roundabout project would have the department taking bids from private contractors in August 2008 and calling for the work to be done during the 2010 construction season.

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