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Sprague off-ramp the latest obstacle for SR 16 drivers

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Aug. 1, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
August 3, 2011 4:12 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

The Nalley Valley weave is menacing South Sound drivers no more. State Route 16′s new hair-raiser is the Sprague L.

Since the eastbound ramp opened to traffic in late June, at least four and perhaps as many as seven vehicles have careened into the concrete barriers at the top of the ramp.

That’s a higher accident rate than the 600-foot-long Nalley Valley viaduct experienced before the new westbound lanes – which eliminated a tricky merge between Interstate 5 and the Sprague exit – opened this summer.

The new approach was intended to prevent 16 crashes a year. Drivers are on pace to post that many accidents and more at the Sprague L – which was built as part of the $184 million westbound project – alone.

The ramp rises quickly from eastbound SR 16, depositing drivers into a 90-degree turn that can be tough to manuever at any speed above the suggested 15 mph limit.

The Department of Transportation picked the elevated overpass – which replaced a flyover ramp that gently curved over the freeway – because it was less costly and quicker to build.

Fast and cheap are not bad attributes – unless they interfere with good design. In highway projects, the right design saves life and limb, not to mention countless hours behind the wheel.

The steep climb up the Sprague off-ramp limits sight lines, requiring drivers to remain alert to signs warning of a sharp turn. The designers seem to have missed the fact that at least 30 percent of drivers are distracted, incompetent, intoxicated, superannuated, impulsive or inexperienced. They left the human factor out of a configuration that looked good on draft paper.

That configuration was undoubtedly made worse by a nearly $1 million mistake discovered in the midst of the construction project. A contractor built the ramp in the wrong place – because the state Department of Transportation told it to.

The mistake – partly the result of more haste, this time a rush to qualify for federal stimulus dollars – forced crews to rip up the ramp and rebuild it steeper.

State officials caution South Sound motorists to reserve judgment until 2014, when the L-shaped ramp becomes a T with the addition of a on-ramp to eastbound SR 16 and a stoplight.

But if inattentive drivers aren’t slowing down fast enough to take the curve, it’s difficult to understand how they will be able to come to a complete stop once the light is there – especially in bad weather.

Here’s hoping that in three years, the Department of Transportation will have proved the naysayers wrong – for the sake of motorists and taxpayers alike.

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