Sunday, October 17, 2010

Patty Murray Brings Home the Bacon

Laura Onstot (Seattle Weekly):

Five miles east of Port Angeles, Deer Park Road intersects with Highway 101. Once upon a time it was a rarely-used rural stretch, but over the past decade, businesses and residential developments have transformed it into a critical commuter artery.

Most of the people who live near Deer Park Road work in Port Angeles. That means that during the morning commute, they have to turn left from Deer Park Road onto 101. There is no stoplight, and its location on a hill makes it hard to see oncoming traffic, which barrels toward the intersection at 45 miles per hour.

"It's just 'wait for an opening in the traffic and take your life into your hands,' " says Clallam County engineer Ross Tyler. But with wait times reaching three minutes, he adds, people get impatient and make a run for it. "And too many times they lose," adds Tyler.

Over the course of a decade, the intersection has seen 37 accidents and four deaths. With additional residential development planned near Deer Park Road, Tyler says, the county had to do something to allow people to safely turn left without stopping the flow of traffic. So Tyler and his staff developed a plan for a $7 million underpass. Henceforth, cars that need to turn left would go underneath 101 and merge in the right-hand lane, rather than darting across.

The only problem the county had was paying for it. With a tax base of about 70,000 residents, $7 million is close to Clallam's annual roads budget. The county could have paid for the project out of pocket, "but when we finished, we'd have to fire everybody and stop plowing roads," says Tyler.

Tyler says he understands where the anti-earmark sentiment comes from. "We all hear of pork-barrel projects and the bridges in Alaska that go to islands in the middle of nowhere. [But the 101 underpass] is one that is a lifesaver, literally in terms of human life, and figuratively in terms of the fact that a county of this size, with our limited income, would just not be able to afford to do it."

County transportation manager Rich James says the county doesn't have the money to hire lobbyists. Instead, James took advantage of trips Murray made to his district while he was seeking federal help. Twice she visited the dangerous intersection.

"She actually saw the three crosses across the road," James says. "I think that's what convinced her that this was a worthy project." Murray ultimately directed $871,000 to the project, with most of the remainder of the tab coming from other competitive federal grants. The underpass is scheduled for completion at the end of this year. MORE...

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