Is the Burley-Olalla ‘fix’ already broken?

While the temporary tweaks to Burley-Olalla interchange meant to decrease accidents at the intersection are now complete, safety is still a concern as the two most dangerous motorist movements the fix was intended to prevent are still occurring, according to Project Engineer David Zeigler of the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Zeigler said although there are signs and striping on the roadway alerting drivers that both traveling across the highway from one side of Burley-Olalla Road to the other and turning left from northbound State Route 16 to westbound Burley-Olalla Road are prohibited, motorists are still performing those actions.

“People should know they can’t make those movements, but they seem to be violating (the posted rules),” Zeigler said. “We think we had a good design, but we are in the process of evaluating the design to see if there are things that might need to be added.”

Zeigler said making it physically impossible for vehicles to perform those actions is not possible, since emergency vehicles will still need those options. But he said his staff might consider erecting other physical barriers, such as candlesticks — slim vertical cones that can be knocked over by those vehicles.

“We don’t have many options for physical barriers, but we hope the candlesticks would give a visual, and fewer people will try and go over them,” Zeigler said.

Other than any potential adjustments he and his staff might make to the intersection, Zeigler said the roadway changes are complete. Currently, the project is on suspension until the finishing touches — new light poles on order — arrive, which Zeigler said he expects will be by the end of September.

The $1.3 million project was designed as an interim fix to alleviate safety concerns at the accident-prone location, which WSDOT describes as the last remaining intersection on State Route 16 between Tacoma and Gorst with traffic that crosses the median.

Other than preventing cross-highway movements, the fix added an acceleration lane (westbound Burley-Olalla to Tacoma), lengthened the deceleration lane (Bremerton to eastbound Burley-Olalla) and improves the existing right turn corner (northbound SR 16 to eastbound Burley-Olalla) with minor widening and the addition of a painted traffic island.

Although a permanent fix — a grade-separated interchange — is funded for construction starting in 2010 — WSDOT felt the interim fix was necessary to improve safety in the meantime.

Many local residents strongly opposed any interim fix, expressing both concern that it might delay or prevent a permanent overpass and skepticism that the temporary changes would improve safety.

Olalla resident Tish Culp spoke out against the design during a WSDOT open house before work began.

“Most of the changes are in the form of paint stripes and signs, and who pays attention to that?” Culp said at the time. “I don’t think it will prevent accidents, and will it reduce accidents? I don’t know — it may be confusing and make it worse.”

Now that the work is finished, Culp admits the acceleration lane and other changes have made the intersection “a bit better,” but she still does not agree that the project was necessary.

“It helped make a state worker a little bit richer,” she said. “But it was too much money to waste.”

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