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Prospects for interchange cloudy

Depending on whom you ask, the process to determine a good temporary solution to the safety problems at the Burley-Olalla/State Route 16 intersection is either almost complete or just starting.

What was intended to have been the last meeting of the Burley-Olalla Steering Committee took place at the end of March. However, whether anything got decided is a matter for debate.

The state Department of Transportation (DOT) officials who attended the meeting believe a virtual consensus was reached. They are currently doing a workup of what they believe was the most popular proposal to come out of the meeting — an intersection that allows left turns in and out of Olalla, but no left-turn access in or out of Burley.

The current intersection allows cars to essentially make any movement on, off or across the highway. Because of that, the intersection is considered one of the most dangerous in the area and has been the site of serious and sometimes deadly T-bone crashes.

When the committee did a risk-assessment chart of the different turning and crossing options, the members found most of the accidents took place around the Burley side. In addition, many members pointed out, Burley residents have a straight shot to the interchanges at Purdy and Mullinex.

The road to and from Olalla, they said, is much less convenient to travel.

The DOT sees this solution as a fair compromise, and one that works within the $1 million budgeted for the project.

“We’re allowing one more conflicting movement than the plan we came to the first open house with,” said project director Ron Landon.

Landon said he sees this proposal as the culmination of the committee’s efforts. The DOT does not plan on having any more meetings, except maybe an orientation meeting before the next public open house. The DOT hopes committee members will work to actively support and defend the proposal to their neighbors and wants to make sure everyone’s on the same page before facing the public.

Landon said the DOT will likely stay in email contact with the committee members and email them schematics of the completed design for review. If the committee feels it needs to meet again after seeing the finished plans, that will be largely up to the committee members.

“It is their committee,” Landon said. “The DOT is just trying to support their efforts.”

Olalla resident Tish Culp, however, got a very different impression from the meeting. She said she thought the DOT was supposed to do schematics for two potential designs – the idea previously mentioned and a similar one that also allowed pass-through movements.

Culp agreed it was most practical to eliminate the conflicting Burley movements, but said it was unfair to go to an open house with only one choice – take it or leave it.

“You don’t just cram one thing down somebody’s throat,” she said.

Culp said she felt the most important aspect of both plans was the right-turn deceleration lanes from Tacoma, which are slated for realignment in both scenarios. The lanes would angle in away from highway traffic, ending approximately 12 feet away from the highway’s edge. Culp said this would do a lot to eliminate visibility problems, a constant issue at that intersection.

She said this element was one of the few things the whole committee could agree on.

“It definitely needs to happen,” she said.

Fire District 7 Chief Mike Brown, on the other hand, saw no resolution come out of the meeting.

He said the conversation seemed to drift endlessly, although he was pleased the idea of a traffic signal – the fire district’s least favorite option – seemed to have fallen out of favor.

Brown said he liked both options the committee ended up discussing – the same two options Culp remembered earning the most favor. He said even with two movements gone, the change could mean a big improvement in intersection safety.

“With only 30 accidents in the last three years, it would probably mean a 20 percent reduction,” Brown said. “What this does is, it makes it a little bit safer with very little impact. It’s a compromise.”

Although the fire district is the agency primarily responsible for cleaning up the intersection’s messes, its first concern is the fire trucks’ ability to cross the highway in case of an emergency. Brown said there would be serious impacts to response time if emergency vehicles could not make a full cross at Burley-Olalla.

Luckily, so far as the district is concerned, fire officials have a separate agreement with the DOT that ensures whatever the solution chosen, emergency vehicles will still have access to the crossing. The current plan is to have special warning lights set up on the highway in both directions. The lights would only be activated when a fire truck or ambulance needed to cross and would shut off when the cross was complete.

Brown said he has no reason to believe that arrangement is in any jeopardy, regardless of what happens with the committee.

“The DOT has told me that it’s still on the table and doable,” he said.

In the end, however, all this discussion could be rendered moot by bills currently under consideration in the state Legislature. Culp said she has heard Sen. Bob Oke (R-Port Orchard) is backing a plan that would divert some of the revenue from the proposed gas tax increase to building a full interchange at Burley-Olalla.

From the beginning, many in the area said they would not be happy with any solution but a full interchange, despite DOT officials’ insistence there was no funding for such a project. If Oke is successful and the gas tax is approved, the estimated $13 million needed for a full interchange could materialize and a temporary fix could be unnecessary.

For that reason, the date for the open house has not yet been set, pending the outcome of this year’s legislative session.

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