Cable barrier foes grill leaders

MARYSVILLE – It took too long and cost too many lives, but people worried about the safety of cable barriers along a dangerous stretch of freeway here said Friday they are glad state officials are finally listening.

“The leadership kind of dug in its heels and said ‘The cable barriers are working,” said Billye Brooks-Sebastiani of Arlington. “Quite obviously, they were not working. As a citizen and taxpayer, I’m very disappointed.”

Brooks-Sebastiani was among about 25 people who attended a meeting Friday scheduled by state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island.

Gov. Chris Gregoire this week ordered state traffic engineers to immediately begin designing a concrete median barrier near Marysville. The move came after an out-of-state expert concluded the cable barriers were not working near Marysville, and an “unacceptable” number of deaths had occurred there.

Haugen on Friday said she plans to seek a supplemental spending bill to cover the estimated $28 million price tag for the concrete barrier. She is chairwoman of the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee.

People on Friday asked state officials why it took more than two years to realize that cable barriers weren’t doing the job here.

State records show that eight people have died in cross-median accidents on 10 miles of I-5 in Marysville since 2000. In each case, the cable barriers failed to stop vehicles.

State traffic engineers tally the wrecks differently and put at seven the number of deaths in cable-barrier-related accidents in that stretch.

The death of Clifford Warren of Everett in a fiery February crash spurred Gregoire to order a review of the state’s cable barrier program.

Cables on northbound I-5 will be replaced with a concrete barrier, but a second set installed last year on southbound I-5 will stay. State traffic engineers say that will add an extra layer of protection.

Cable barriers are working well elsewhere in Washington, saving lives, according to Malcolm Ray, the independent expert the hired by the state. He’s a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass.

Ray recommended the switch to a concrete barrier in Marysville, writing in his report “we simply cannot risk another fatal cross-median crash on this section of roadway.”

John Holschen of Bothell lost his daughter, Megan, 18, in a 2004 head-on crash. He told state officials he’s pleased a concrete barrier is now in the works.

“It’s been a long time coming, from our point of view,” Holschen said. “It’s nice to have the experts reinforce what common sense would seem to indicate.”

Holschen is concerned, however, that the state traffic engineers still can’t say why cable barriers didn’t work in Marysville, especially because they plan to continue investing in the technology elsewhere.

State Department of Transportation officials believe contributing factors may include the way fast-moving vehicles mix with slower traffic plus the cluster of heavily used freeway interchanges.

Proceed with caution, Holschen said.

“Until we know why they failed here, we don’t know that they won’t fail at the next installation,” he said.

Transportation officials defended cable barriers Friday, saying that they have reduced crossover fatalities and serious injuries elsewhere in the state by 74 percent.

But state officials said they plan to follow the report’s recommendation to more closely study accident data looking for indications of other cable barrier problem spots.

The report also suggested the state participate in a national discussion on how to build cable barriers strong enough to restrain large sports utility vehicles and trucks.

Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste said he will continue to go after speeding drivers along the freeway near Marysville, one of the state’s worst areas for speeding.

Ultimately, no barrier can prevent fatal accidents, he said.

“It isn’t the barrier,” he said. “It’s the drivers. We need to slow them down.”

Scott Tomkins of Arlington said the state never should have installed the cable barriers in a ditch that sits in the middle of the freeway.

“I find it hard to figure out how that would stop a large vehicle,” Tomkins said. “I think they’re way too low.”

As part of the review, state officials acknowledged they’d installed some of the cable barrier improperly, failing to tighten a device that was supposed to hold them in place.

Martha Holschen, who was seriously injured in the crash that killed her daughter, said her family plans to keep pushing.

“Our philosophy is not to sit around worrying about our daughter who’s gone,” she said. Instead, the family will work to protect other families from similar tragedies. “It’s her legacy.”

Reporter Lukas Velush: 425-339-3449 or lvelush@heraldnet.com.

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