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Safety must come first for state transportation system

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By Mary Margaret Haugen
Tragedy strikes far too often on Washington highways.
According to the Traffic Safety Commission, 302 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents on Washington state highways in 2006 -- the most recent year for which data are available.
While each of these accidents has an emotional story behind it, my job as the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee is to set aside the grief we all feel and focus on the pragmatic, real-world issue at hand: how to reduce the odds of these kinds of accidents happening again.
Our state is challenged by an ever-increasing number of vehicles on our highways, which has led to an accompanying increase in the number of accidents, as well as frustrating congestion. Meanwhile, limited resources force us to prioritize our decisions about which projects get taken care of first.
As far as I'm concerned, safety must be the highest priority of our state transportation system.
There's no doubt that U.S. 2 in Snohomish County has seen more than its share of deadly accidents -- from January 1999 to June 2007 there were 39 fatal collisions, with a total of 47 fatalities.
Law enforcement identified a contributing circumstance for 22 of the collisions, and found the most common factors were alcohol or drugs (12 collisions), exceeding the reasonable, safe speed or stated speed limit (six collisions), and the driver being fatigued, asleep or ill (four collisions).
On top of that, we cannot ignore the changing nature of how the highway is used. Development of the once-rural area has brought an increase in eager commuters and younger, less experienced drivers on a two-lane highway that was never designed for its current capacity.
The state has an obligation to make U.S. 2 safer, and has been working on doing so for quite some time. The Department of Transportation's "U.S. 2 Route Development Plan" has identified 56 projects to enhance safety and reduce congestion between Snohomish and Skykomish.
The route development plan calls for 34 safety-related projects that are projected to cost less than $5 million each, 12 safety-related projects that are expected to cost more than $5 million each, and 10 projects aimed primarily at congestion relief that would cost a total of $600 million to $900 million.
Everyone, including me, is in favor of getting these projects done.
The catch is that no one I have spoken to can provide me with a realistic source for the $2 billion it would take to fund all of these projects at once. Until someone does, we'll have to prioritize how we allocate our limited transportation dollars between these projects, and similar projects all over the state.
Unfortunately, some people are more than willing to ignore this reality.
Some complain about "studying this to death" -- forgetting that much of the congestion on U.S. 2 is a result of local and regional government not bothering to study the inevitable impact of development, and ignoring or cutting corners on their transportation infrastructure responsibilities.
Others insist that "congestion relief" should be our top priority. They are apparently more concerned with saving minutes than saving lives.
Building, maintaining and improving our transportation infrastructure isn't cheap. Ferries are expensive. Viaducts and floating bridges are expensive. Keeping mountain passes open and clear of snow in the winter is expensive. Law enforcement by the Washington State Patrol is expensive. And so are all of the projects needed to make U.S. 2 safer.
I feel the frustration along with everyone else who gets stuck in traffic. My commute from Camano Island to Olympia during the legislative session takes me through some of the most congested miles of highway in our state -- in Everett, Seattle and Tacoma.
I get stuck in traffic just like everyone else, and agree that we need to work toward reducing congestion on our highways -- but not at the risk of sacrificing safety.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, is the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and represents all of Island County and parts of Snohomish and Skagit counties.

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