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A question of highway access

If the state's Department of Transportation and members of a Freeland church can't see eye-to-eye this fall, congregation members or anyone wanting to use the church park and ride may be taking a detour.

Following the recent expansion of Trinity Lutheran Church, the DOT is considering shutting down the church's Highway 525 access road. Todd Harrison, an assistant regional manager for the DOT, said last Thursday a traffic study done by the church prior to the expansion showed an expected increase of 11 car trips in and out of church property daily during peak traffic hours. That, the proximity of Woodard Road and a high accident rate in the area, Harrison said, was enough to get the DOT to reconsider the safety of the church's highway access.

"It's an accident concern," he said.

Under state law, no highway access may be located within 660 feet of an intersection of a state highway and a county road. The distance between Trinity's access road and Woodard Road is 120 feet.

The DOT originally insisted the access road be closed, which would force all traffic going to the church or the DOT's Park and Ride lot -- which is co-located with the church parking lot -- to use a back entrance on Woodard Road. Harrison said his agency has backed off to a compromise solution, under which only right-hand turns in or out of the access road would be allowed.

Rev. Jim Lindus, pastor at Trinity Lutheran, said he does not believe the church should lose any of its access rights off the highway. Its access road has been in the same place for 47 years, he said, and has a safe traffic history, especially on Sunday mornings. The DOT's accident records, Lindus said, show only one accident during the past seven years that occurred before, during or after worship services.

The bigger issue, one Lindus believes DOT officials should address, is the speed of traffic between Fish and Woodard roads. Even though there are six points at which drivers can turn off the highway between those two roads, the speed limit for that stretch of highway is 55 mph. That is too fast, Lindus said.

Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton agrees with Lindus and has been pressing the DOT to think more about speed than the distance between a county road and the church's highway access.

"Yeah, they're too close because the speed limit is 55 miles per hour through there," he said.

On that point, both Shelton and Lindus will get some satisfaction. The DOT's Harrison said a recent speed survey done on the stretch of highway in question proves that a speed reduction is in order. He said the speed limit will be reduced in that area sometime in the next few months.

As for closing down or limiting access to the church, Shelton said this is not the thing to do. Those actions would divert traffic to Woodard Road, a road Shelton said would be hazardous if used by a large amount of traffic on Sunday mornings.

In addition, closing the access would also effectively shut down the park and ride.

"That seems to be a wrong-headed decision to me," Shelton said.

At the same time, the DOT has made no provision for a left-hand turn lane. As Freeland grows, such a lane will be a necessity, according to Lindus. But from the DOT's perspective, it is an impossibility: Harrison said there are too many access points between Fish and Woodard roads for safe, well-defined turning slots.

Both Lindus and Harrison said they hope to solve the highway access dilemma through negotiations. If they can't, the matter will go before an administrative judge in January. The issue was to get a DOT hearing in August, but agency officials delayed it when the right-in, right-out solution was proposed.

Lindus said he'd prefer to avoid the hearing because he knows the case will not go the church's way.

"According to state regulations, it's a no-brainer and they can shut it down," he said.

The church and the DOT are expected to come up with a traffic solution sometime this fall.

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