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Sunday, October 12, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gas tankers in I-90 tunnel scare driver

Seattle Times staff reporter

Bob Bethke, of Bellevue, was driving along Interstate 90 in the tunnels at rush hour the other morning and found himself sandwiched between two gasoline trucks. He wondered what they were doing there, called 911 and was told the trucks can use the tunnel if they're empty. Bethke wonders how officials know if a gas truck is empty.

Stan Suchan, with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), says gasoline trucks, whether empty or full, must follow the same rules to travel on I-90. Gasoline trucks are allowed to use I-90 any time unless the WSDOT restricts vehicles carrying flammable materials, which happens when the fire-suppression system in the Mount Baker Tunnel is turned off, usually for maintenance. When a flammable-restriction notice is in place, all gasoline trucks are prohibited from using the I-90 tunnels.

"We restrict all trucks because we cannot tell whether they are empty or full and because even a seemingly empty gasoline truck can contain residual gas," Suchan says.

Barbara Kuznetz, of Seattle, says that ever since the renovation of Roosevelt Square was completed, traffic has become incredibly congested around the North Seattle complex.

"My major concern is the upper parking lot where you exit onto (one-way) 12th Avenue Northeast. There is considerable traffic on 12th that you must work your way into from the lot, but when cars are parked right next to the driveway (on the south side) it is impossible to even see if it's safe to move out into the street.

"Although there is a sign on the north side of the driveway saying 'no parking,' people continue to park right next to the driveway, blocking the view. A 'no parking' sign for about 30 feet and a red line (on the curb) would make it a much less dangerous situation."

Rob Spillar, director of traffic management for the Seattle Department of Transportation, says that when determining whether additional parking restrictions are needed near driveways, the city takes into consideration such things as the geometry of the location, whether objects might further impede views, the posted and operating speed of the road and the accident history at the location.

"I have asked my staff to go out and check this location to determine whether any changes are needed to improve the sight lines and distance for people exiting this driveway," Spillar says.

Deb Crow writes to ask about the Spokane Street median dividers and why they're not used on other roads.

It's hard to imagine now, she says, but there were 51 head-on collisions and 12 deaths between 1991 and 1999 in the stretch between the West Seattle Bridge and Interstate 5. The elevated roadway was too narrow for a concrete divider, says Crow, but in 2000, a new type of steel-clad barrier, just a foot wide, was installed by the city and Nevada-based Barrier Systems.

"Nobody has died since," she says, suggesting that the thin dividers be considered in other danger zones, such as the Highway 522 curve at Lake Forest Park just east of Ballinger Way, or perhaps the Aurora Bridge.

"We have considered barriers and other options to improve safety on both State Route 522 east of Lake Forest Park and the Aurora Bridge," says WSDOT's Suchan. "Unfortunately, there's no cheap, quick fix in either location."

While the steel-clad barriers are a foot wide at the top, they're 2 feet wide at the base. In Lake Forest Park, Suchan says, the lanes are 10 feet wide and there are steep slopes on either side, so there is no room to install a barrier with a 2-foot-wide base without significant, costly work to widen the highway and construct retaining walls.

While accidents occur on the road, the number is not higher than average, and WSDOT has determined it's better to spend limited safety dollars to fix other trouble spots, Suchan says.

The lanes on the Aurora Bridge are only 9½ feet wide. To install a median barrier, "we'd either have to make the lanes even narrower, a dangerous proposition, or widen the bridge. As you can imagine, that is quite costly," Suchan says.

"While the city of Seattle and the WSDOT are taking preliminary steps to investigate options to widen the bridge, the project is not funded at this time."

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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