Coalition's tireless battle to make U.S. 2 safer is paying off
Photos by Samuel Wilson / The Herald
Fred Walser, a retired Washington State Patrol trooper who serves on the U.S. 2 Traffic Safety Coalition, drives westbound on U.S. 2 on Nov. 23. Walser and fellow volunteers have been working for 16 years to improve safety on the rural highway between Everett and Stevens Pass.
Samuel Wilson / The Herald
Rumble strips were installed between Monroe and Sultan on U.S. 2 in 2008, which have dramatically decreased accidents in the last five years.
A car speeds past a memorial sign for Donna and Robert Moore east of Monroe on Thursday. Their deaths in 1997 were among the initial motivators for Fred Walser and others to begin the U.S. 2 Traffic Safety Coalition.
Samuel Wilson / The Herald
A westbound car travels on U.S. 2 east of Index on Nov. 28.
It has taken four close friends he admired -- his former administrative aide and her husband, a nurse married for nearly 50 years, a father of four who adopted and fostered 13 other children.
Fred Walser said he talked to each of those people just hours before they died in crashes on U.S. 2.
Their memories help explain why fixing the highway is so personal to the retired Washington State Patrol collision investigator.
In more than 28 years as a trooper, Walser examined unspeakable carnage along the ribbon of unforgiving roadway. In fog and rain, the glare of sun and the black of night, the highway sometimes brought him to strangers' doorsteps to deliver tragic news.
For the past 16 years, Walser and a band of volunteers known as the U.S. 2 Traffic Safety Coalition have given their time, hoping to tame a 63-mile stretch of the highway winding east from Everett's edge through scenic farmland and forest to the Stevens Pass summit.
During that time, the coalition has met monthly, often with state Department of Transportation engineers at the table. It has been a predictable presence in Olympia where state lawmakers on the House and Senate transportation committees have come to address Walser by his first name. And it has worked tirelessly to provide a voice for small communities straddling the largely two-lane highway.
Since 1999, there have been 68 deaths along U.S. 2 between Everett and the summit, according to state statistics. That includes 60 fatal accidents with at least 34 caused by drivers crossing the centerline.
During that time, there have been nearly 900 collisions that resulted in roughly 1,600 injuries.
Safer than it once was
What can be lost in the big numbers is that U.S. 2 has become safer than it once was. Fewer people are dying and getting hurt there these days.
The state has spent more than $90 million on the stretch since 2007.
That total includes $67 million for safety and capacity improvements and repairs in the lowlands and $23 million at the summit. Those expenses were separate from annual maintenance costs.
In 2008, the state installed rumble strips along the centerline and shoulders between Monroe and Sultan. Rumble strips also were placed on the centerline between Sultan and Stevens Pass. The centerline rumble strips are designed to warn drivers who start to drift toward oncoming traffic. The number of fatal crashes along the more than 40 miles with rumble strips has dropped from 11 during the five years before they were installed to six in the five years since. The number of injury collisions in that area declined from 102 to 59 during that time.
"There has been a pretty significant reduction any way you slice it," state Department of Transportation regional traffic engineer Mark Leth said.
Two electronic reader boards installed along the highway in 2009 keep running tallies of days between serious accidents that once seemed so commonplace. The longest stretch reached 196 days, ending in February 2011.
Earlier this year, construction crews finished a new over crossing from Bickford Avenue to westbound U.S. 2 in Snohomish to reduce the risk of serious collisions. The project, which included culvert replacements, cost more than $22 million.
The U.S. 2-Bickford Avenue intersection was the site of more than two dozen collisions between 2006 and September 2013. More than 20 involved drivers turning left from Bickford Avenue onto U.S. 2. One man's pickup truck was hit broadside by a dump truck in 2006. Greg Solberg, 52, lingered for more than 13 months before he died of complications from the traumatic brain injury he suffered in the crash.
The new route now takes traffic over U.S. 2 rather than across it.
All the work in recent years has been part of a coordinated strategy, Leth said.
"Our approach is the rumble strips for starters and taking on the highest-needs locations when money is available," he said.
Another example of a high-need fix is a $4.9 million roundabout at Sultan's Rice Road. That's where there had been 20 collisions in a five-year period. In February 2010, Bruce Ramsey, a popular lieutenant at the Monroe Correctional Complex, was driving his motorcycle west on U.S. 2 when it collided with a car that pulled onto the highway from Rice Road. A state study later showed many people were making high-risk turns through and near the intersection.
Victims of bad drivers
The totality of projects along U.S. 2 should be cause for celebration and to some degree it is, Walser said.
"There has been close to $100 million in safety improvements since we started on a highway that once got very little attention," he said.
At the same time, people continue to die. There were two fatal crossover collisions in October, one killing a suspected drunken driver who was trying to escape arrest; the other, a mile east of Index, a Federal Way man died trying to pass another vehicle.
In both cases, others were hurt. The crash involving the suspected drunken driver sent an Edmonds man, 86, to the hospital. Two Snohomish County sheriff's deputies also needed medical attention. In the other collision, the driver's pregnant passenger, 22, was injured.
On a rural highway, some road projects are needed to protect the good drivers from the bad, Walser said.
"It's not just the bad driver who gets killed or hurt," he said. "It's the innocent person who is doing what is right. We have an obligation to them."
It's why he and others, some who have lost loved ones, won't let up.
"You have to keep pressing," Walser said. "I'm never going to quit. You have got to ask, 'What's it going to take?'"
John Seehuus, who recently was elected to the Sultan City Council, has been a member of the coalition from the start.
"It's a passion," he said. "After driving the highway for so long and seeing these accidents so frequently, it just keeps you going."
State Rep. Marko Liias, vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said the U.S. 2 Traffic Safety Coalition has gained credibility in Olympia over the years. While some proposals gain more traction than others, the voice of the valley is being heard.
"Fred is determined," Liias said.
A top priority is to find money for a bypass around Monroe, where traffic congestion has contributed to some of the highest concentrations of serious accidents over the years. The project, which would be built in three phases, could cost well over $200 million.
A 'seat belt' for U.S. 2
Lately, Walser also has been advocating for cable barriers and LED lights along the U.S. 2 median to separate drivers and better light the way. He drove on such a highway in Motala, Sweden.
Cable barriers could serve as "a seat belt" for U.S. 2, keeping drunken and aggressive drivers from crossing centerlines, he said.
It could also prevent accidents caused by drivers suffering medical emergencies.
The latter happened to Genevieve Jelinek in May 2007 when her car crossed the line and collided with a flatbed truck. The longtime Sultan resident was a nurse who often tended to people injured along U.S. 2.
Just hours before she died, she'd been talking with Walser about wanting to join efforts to make the highway safer, he said.
"It's just like it stole my heart," said her husband Clyde Jelinek. "Why? Because they couldn't afford to put barriers on the highway."
The death of Jelinek, who was well known for her volunteer work in Sultan, reignited a flame in Seehuus to press for safety improvements along U.S. 2. He tries to take a long view.
"Rome wasn't built in a day," he said. "We just keep chipping away. There is a long way to go."
The state Department of Transportation isn't supportive of adding cable or concrete barriers, or LED lights, under existing conditions.
"You need more width, whether that is cable barrier or concrete barrier," Leth said. "It's a footprint we don't have out there."
Cable barriers also can be the wrong tool for the job. The state learned that lesson about a decade ago along I-5 north of Marysville, where cable barriers, including portions that were improperly installed, failed to stop a string of tragic crashes.
Preliminary Department of Transportation estimates for cable or concrete barriers between Snohomish and Sultan are as high as $650 million.
Walser believes the work can be done for much cheaper than the state is now estimating.
He is more hopeful that the state someday will install solar-powered lights in the highway pavement to illuminate the way along dark stretches. He recently asked the Senate Transportation Committee to kick in $5 million for the lights.
Leth said the state will study the possibility of barriers and lights along a stretch of I-90's Snoqualmie Pass. It has tested the lights before and is so far skeptical about their ability to survive the harsh winter conditions in the Pacific Northwest.
Sometimes Walser pushes politicians and business leaders to think outside of the box when considering U.S. 2.
Lately, he has been pitching what he calls a "mega" proposal to build a four-lane freight mobility corridor, complete with rail, between Everett's Boeing plant and Spokane.
The project, paid for by tolls, "would answer a lot of the safety problems" on U.S. 2, he said.
Two weeks ago, he asked the state Senate Transportation Committee to include $50 million for start-up work.
It might have seemed a quixotic plea, but he wasn't alone in urging lawmakers to think big.
Former state Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, also lobbied for the funding. He argued the state keeps paying for one safety improvement at a time and needs to make the whole road safe.
"Highway 2 is nickel and diming the state of Washington and has been for a long time, and it's time to do it right," Armstrong told the senate committee.
Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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