'The Highway of Death' and taxes

U.S. Highway 2 between Everett and Stevens Pass is widely regarded as the most dangerous in the state, and yet getting money appropriated for making it safer seems to be an uphill battle. Could that be because local Republican legislators keep voting against highway taxes?
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U.S. Highway 2 between Everett and Stevens Pass is widely regarded as the most dangerous in the state, and yet getting money appropriated for making it safer seems to be an uphill battle. Could that be because local Republican legislators keep voting against highway taxes?

Are partisan politics getting in the way of fixing Washington's "Highway of Death"? Comments made by key Democratic lawmakers suggest the answer might be yes. At issue is U.S. 2 between Everett and Stevens Pass. Since 1999, 47 people have died on that 70-mile stretch of mostly two-lane road.

Last November, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) released a list of 56 recommended projects to improve safety and reduce congestion on Highway 2. Total estimated cost: $1 billion to $2 billion.

But this year the governor and majority Democrats in the Legislature originally pledged just $9 million to get started. That number has now been increased to $14 million. (By way of comparison, the Aurora Bridge in Seattle is slated to get $7.5 million for a suicide prevention fence.) The money would pay for rumble strips and high-visibility striping on a 40-mile section of the highway. The remaining $10 million would be spent on other priority Highway 2 improvements.

The additional $5 million might appease Republicans whose districts include Highway 2. But earlier in the session they were incensed. State Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, recently said this about the original budget proposal, which included $5 million for a passing lane near the town of Sultan: "Fifty-six projects and what did we get in the budget? We got $5 million to repair an area where there's never been a fatality. That concerns me."

(The Department of Transportation notes that the passing lane is one of the top items on the Highway 2 project list. A spokesperson says the passing lane would relieve frustration from drivers, and that could reduce crashes further down the road.)

Majority Democrats have offered several responses to GOP complaints. Chief among them: The state doesn't have any money for major new transportation projects. And that's basically true.

However, it seems where there's a will there's a way. Last summer, Gov. Chris Gregoire pledged $26.9 million to replace cable-median barriers with concrete barriers along Interstate 5 in the Marysville area. This was in response to high-profile, deadly cross-over accidents there.

Democrats have also suggested on more than one occasion that Highway 2 is a victim of politics. They point out that Republican lawmakers whose districts include the "Highway of Death" voted against the most recent gas-tax increases - increases that funded hundreds of projects statewide.

Here's what the Senate transportation chair told The Seattle Times last September:

"It's really brutal to say, but the people from those districts didn't support anything as far as funding," said Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island. Consequently, less revenue went to districts with legislators who didn't support the tax measure, she explained. "That certainly is a big reason."

More recently, state Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, offered this answer when asked why Highway 2 doesn't get more attention:

I would suggest to those who say today that we're not addressing that as a priority, the lesson I've learned is that be part of a solution process, be part of saying here's what would work for me and I think that message has been delivered to quite a few legislators.

If it's true that Highway 2 and its users are being penalized for votes taken by GOP lawmakers, it's a brutal lesson. As Kristiansen puts it: "We know statistically if we do not deal with this issue this year we're going to probably lose anywhere from eight to 10 people on that corridor."

This year Kristiansen and other Highway 2 lawmakers tried to wrangle more money for safety projects. State Senator Val Stevens, R-Arlington, even attempted to take $13 million from a rail project in Transportation Chair Haugen's district and use it for Highway 2. When that amendment failed, Stevens put out a press release that read: "How the majority party can prioritize a railroad pullout over saving lives on what has been called Washington's most dangerous road is beyond me."

The recent addition of $5 million seems to have calmed Stevens. In a news release, she says: "This money is still not enough to buy the land needed to widen Highway 2, but it's a small start."

Meanwhile, Sen. Haugen, the Senate transportation chair, defends her commitment to Highway 2. In her budget, Haugen orders the Washington State Patrol to redirect six troopers from other areas to patrol the "Highway of Death."

Haugen also points out that there wasn't a comprehensive plan for Highway 2 improvements until last fall, when the WSDOT project report came out. Now she suggests attention is shifting to this long-neglected and deadly road. "We have a plan now, we're beginning to invest in it," says Haugen. But she warns a lot more money will be needed, and where that money comes from is anyone's guess.


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