Cable barriers are out, concrete ones in

Gov. Chris Gregoire on Monday ordered state transportation officials to immediately begin drawing up plans for a concrete barrier along a deadly stretch of I-5 near Marysville.

The move comes after an out-of-state expert said the number of fatal crashes near Marysville is “unacceptable,” even as data shows cable barriers are saving lives elsewhere around Washington.

“While I firmly believe that cable median barriers are highly effective and an appropriate choice in many locations, we simply cannot risk another fatal cross-median crash on this section of roadway,” said Malcolm Ray, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass.

Gregoire ordered the review in February after an Everett man became the eighth person to die in across-the-median crashes along I-5 in Marysville since 2000.

In each case, the cable barriers failed to stop vehicles from crossing the median.

The report concluded that the cable barriers not only were the wrong tool to use in Marysville, but that the state improperly installed at least part of the system.

To combat those problems, state officials plan to pay closer attention to accident data. They also plan to study whether the cables are adequate to catch heavier trucks and sport utility vehicles.

“We are going to take the information we have now and do our best to prevent future tragedies,” Gregoire said.

Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said work will begin immediately. Concrete barriers should arrive in Marysville by next summer if state lawmakers are willing to spend an estimated $28 million.

He and Gregoire both said they remain strong supporters of cable barriers. MacDonald pointed to statistics that show the barriers have reduced fatal and severe injury accidents elsewhere in the state by 74 percent.

Only in the Marysville area have people been dying, MacDonald said. There, “the question has been, ‘So what’s the deal here? Are we living in some kind of Bermuda Triangle of traffic or something?’”

The study doesn’t fully answer that question.

“Marysville is the mystery, and it still continues to be the mystery,” said Stan Suchan, a state Department of Transportation spokesman.

Fast-moving vehicles mixing with slower traffic, plus a cluster of heavily used freeway interchanges, could be contributing to the unusual number of crossover accidents, state officials said.

John Holschen’s 18-year-old daughter, Megan, was killed in a 2004 crash. The death and injury of others in the Holschen family sparked a closer look at what was happening with cable barriers along Marysville’s 10-mile stretch.

Holschen, of Bothell, said Monday he is encouraged that the state plans to install a concrete barrier, but it isn’t enough.

He said the state needs to know what went wrong in Marysville so the problems don’t show up elsewhere and lead to tragedies for other families.

“As a taxpayer, I don’t want them to create a similar situation and cost me money,” Holschen said. “As a father and husband I don’t want my family exposed to those risks. My hope is all this effort has created enough incentive to get our questions answered.”

The state in December agreed to pay $2 million to settle claims brought by the Holschen family.

The February death of Cliff Warren in a fiery crash prompted Gregoire to hire Ray and order a review of cable barriers. The investigation found that one of the cable barriers the Everett man hit failed because it was improperly installed.

Monday was the first that Warren’s family had heard of the faulty installation.

“I’m very shocked. We’ve been cognizant that system wasn’t the correct system but we didn’t realize it was installed improperly,” said Warren’s son-in-law, Dennis O’Leary.

Warren’s family also was troubled that the report cited tests showing the man had a .07 blood alcohol content at the time of his death. That is below the legal limit for drunken driving, but within the range for potential impairment.

Washington State Patrol troopers have told the family that the alcohol level did not explain why Warren crossed all lanes of traffic and crashed into the median, O’Leary said. The report fails to mention that Warren had emphysema and severe heart disease, he said.

“We certainly would believe it was a medical emergency,” O’Leary said.

Ray sent his findings to state officials April 26.

In the two months since, transportation department engineers have conducted their own review and sent cable barrier components from Marysville off for tests, said Dave McCormick, the department’s assistant regional administrator for maintenance and traffic operations.

The tests showed one of the anchors that held an end of cable barrier failed because part of it was too loose, McCormick said.

The state has now tested all of the same type of cable barrier across the state. A total of 1,809 anchors were checked and 38 were found in need of tightening. In other words, about 2 percent were loose, McCormick said.

The state hopes to learn from what happened in Marysville by paying closer attention to accident data, looking for potential problem spots.

A 2005 analysis of that data by The Herald showed that along a three-mile stretch on I-5 in Marysville, the barriers were failing to stop cars in the median 20 percent of the time.

The state reduced speed limits, and a short time later launched its own study that found the barriers were improperly placed and allowing vehicles to duck under. The state’s answer was to string up a second set of cables.

That didn’t account for – or stop – larger vehicles blasting through the cables.

State officials on Monday said they will make it a priority to design standards for cable barriers that should stop SUVs and larger vehicles.

Hopefully a concrete barrier will solve problems in Marysville, but there’s no guarantee, Suchan said. Hitting a concrete barrier and bouncing back into traffic can be just as deadly as crossing the freeway median and driving into opposing traffic, he said.

Mike Nelson is a Seattle attorney who represented the Holschen family. He represents two other families who are filing claims against the state because of cable barrier-related accidents near Marysville.

Nelson said the report’s findings don’t surprise him. The experts he hired to investigate the cable barriers in Marysville had already determined they were installed incorrectly.

“My big question is, why did it take so long for the state to do something proactive?” Nelson said. “Why wasn’t something done when the state knew people were going under and over the cable barriers?”

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

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