Locals say state passes buck on fixing Highway 525 problems in Clinton


South Whidbey Record

CLINTON — Island County Commissioner Phil Bakke is furious over a new report on Highway 525 that he says downplays the serious safety concerns on the thoroughfare that cuts through the heart of town.

Bakke fired off a letter to the chief of the state Department of Transportation after seeing the draft study last week, which Bakke said “rubs salt in the wounds of our Clinton residents” because it shifts responsibility for safety improvements on the state highway to Island County.

Bakke has spoken with the Clinton community twice in the last six months to hear their concerns about Highway 525. The community has a different perspective about traffic than the report indicates, he said.

“Both meetings were dominated by concerns by Clinton folks about speeding, the highway dividing Clinton into two sections, lack of pedestrian access to two halves of the town,” he said.

“People in Clinton are really concerned about speed. And the report confirms that.”

The draft report on transportation issues in Clinton was released earlier this month, and those who have read it say the report itself highlights safety problems that the state seems unwilling to address.

A speed study within the draft report showed that more than two thirds of the drivers who pass through Clinton exceed the speed limit. The report also notes the State Patrol does not consider speeding drivers in Clinton as a concern and said changes are not needed to the highway.

“The reports says 68 percent of drivers are exceeding the speed limit and the State Patrol doesn’t seem to think that is a problem in their comments,” Bakke said.

Bakke said the report repeatedly mentions “perceived” safety issues. Residents concerns about speeding drivers, safety for pedestrians and other issues are not “perceived” but real, he said.

Roughly 7,000 vehicles roll through Clinton every day — that’s about 2.5 million a year — mainly due to traffic coming from the Clinton Ferry Terminal.

While 19 collisions were reported in Clinton between 2004 and 2006, the report said that number is comparatively low because of the high traffic volume on Highway 525.

Jack Lynch, a member of the Clinton Advisory Team, also doesn’t like the findings in the report.

“They are saying, ‘Since there haven’t been any fatalities and there have been only X number of accidents, etc., that there is not really a problem,’” Lynch said.

He also said the state seems to be pushing the problems onto the county.

“If we want some improvements made, that should come out of the county doing a community plan rather than a DOT plan,” he said, paraphrasing the report.

“Why would this have even started if, in the end, they were going to recommend that everything be done by the county and the state gets to just opt out?

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Lynch said. “It is a state highway. The county can hardly force the state to make improvements in the highway. That is the state’s business.”

“Island County doesn’t have jurisdiction over a state highway,” Bakke added.

Bakke said the county’s Scenic Corridor By-way Plan notes that pedestrian safety is a concern in Clinton as drivers ignore the speed limit through town. The plan also called on the state Department of Transportation to consider improvements to the highway to calm traffic.

Todd Carlson, manager of the planning and services section of the state’s Department of Transportation in Mount Baker, helped draft the report. He agreed that excessive speed is an issue in Clinton and that pedestrians don’t feel safe walking next to the highway or trying to cross the busy roadway.

Carlson said traffic calming measures would increase the safety of the area.

But the state is not going to come to rescue Clinton, he said.

“What the community is looking for is someone to come in and save the day,” he said.

“We have no money to build or maintain any of this stuff. It’s such a low priority when you look at the bigger system we work with,” Carlson said.

Carlson said the state is only a part of the solution.

“If we work together on a multitude of solutions that have different funding partners, something can happen,” he said. “We are part of the process. We’re not the only one.”

Bakke, however, said he had hoped the long-term study effort on Highway 525 would bring real results on solving safety problems.

“There are people in Clinton who were hoping that in three years of studying, that meant they were going to recommend some solutions to the [ferry] pick-up/drop-off area; not a document that essentially disagrees with the Scenic By-way Plan,” he said.

Lynch agreed.

“Lynae Slinden (South Whidbey port commissioner) and I both agree we’re disappointed in this whole effort,” he said.

“It was really to be a pre-design analysis to actually identify improvements and take them to the preliminary concept stage about what would be done. This thing has wound up to be nothing but a brief report that basically WSDOT begs off any responsibility to do anything in the corridor.

“That was totally inconsistent with the intent of what this was about when it started,” Lynch said.

Carlson, though, said the state is not trying to duck its responsibility for the state highway.

“We’re not playing that kind of game,” Carlson said. “What we’re saying is we need a partnership here. The intent of this process was to identify issues and we have identified two issues that are kind of searching for solutions.”

Carlson and Lynch did agree on what examples of traffic calming designs can work in the Puget Sound. They both pointed to Kingston in Kitsap County as a successful way to control traffic within a small downtown area.

“For a while now, we’ve talked about in places having a center planted strip to break up those five lanes and make it seem more like you’re entering a community,” Lynch said. “Kingston is a classic example or in the Shoreline area on Highway 99.”

Carlson also noted land-use changes could have an effect on calming traffic.

“What I would love to see is a change in land use; bring the buildings right up to the highway, getting more street trees,” he said. “The median issue is always difficult because it costs a lot of money to maintain stuff in the middle of the roadway.”

The draft report will undergo more scrutiny before it’s rolled out for public comment, officials said.

The report will be brought officially to the Clinton Advisory Team in May and then placed onto the state Department of Transportation Web site for public review.

Spencer Webster can be reached at 221-5300 or

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