Death makes plain the importance of Highway 14 work

Project is intended to reduce risk of crashes like Monday’s

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 
photo

When a cement truck lost control and hit three cars on Highway 14 in Camas last week, killing one driver, it returned the spotlight to a dangerous stretch of road that’s seen hundreds of collisions over the years.

After apparently blowing a tire, the eastbound truck veered into westbound traffic, according to Washington State Patrol. Its timing was regrettable — the crash happened in a construction zone where crews had just begun work to improve safety on the narrow corridor near Camas and Washougal.

Among the changes: Workers will install concrete median barriers to prevent crossover collisions like the one that killed an 18-year-old Vancouver woman Monday.

“It certainly reminds us all why we’re out there,” said Abbi Russell, a Washington State Department of Transportation spokeswoman. “The median barrier piece seems like a minor piece of this project … but it’s really an extremely important part of the safety portion of this project.”

Medians are far from the only facet of a project that will transform Highway 14 by the time it’s finished in 2013. The highway will expand to four lanes east of — but not including — the West Camas Slough Bridge, all the way through to Sixth Street in Washougal. That section is now two lanes. New median barriers will extend through both the West Camas Slough Bridge and Lady Island Bridge, close to where this week’s fatal crash occurred.

Crews also plan to remove two stoplights to reduce congestion through Camas and Washougal. Instead, an elevated Highway 14 will sail straight over Union Street in Camas and Sixth Street in Washougal. New frontage roads will connect with those streets while the highway is raised.

“It’s much more complicated than simply widening,” Russell said of the $50 million project, reaching from milepost 12 to milepost 16.

195 collisions

From 2004 to the end of 2007, that four-mile stretch of the highway alone saw 195 collisions, according to WSDOT. More than half of those were rear-end collisions, according to the data.

Other crashes were much more serious.

Monday’s crash involving the cement truck killed 18-year-old Kali Oberg of Vancouver. Five others went to the hospital.

Vancouver resident Rhonda Freeman knows the dangers of the area well. In 1998, her “dear friend” David Rippe of Portland was killed in a crash that also severely injured his two children. The wreck occurred just east of the Lady Island Bridge, at almost the same site as Monday’s fatal crash.

“When I heard about the wreck,” Freeman said, “it just made my heart hurt the rest of the day.”

Both of Rippe’s children who survived the 1998 crash still bear the physical and emotional scars, Freeman said. She seldom drives that part of the highway. When she does, it brings back a flood of emotions, she said.

“You get a big lump in your throat as you start to approach it,” Freeman said.

While the Lady Island Bridge will be expanded to four lanes, some have asked why the similarly narrow West Camas Slough Bridge won’t be expanded as well. Funding is a big reason, Russell said.

With the structural reinforcement and seismic upgrades required to expand it, the cost of expanding that bridge alone would have exceeded $25 million, Russell said. That simply didn’t fit in the project’s budget, so planners opted not to include it to make available money go further, she said.

Project planners see the work as an opportunity to improve safety on a corridor that’s long been troublesome. So does Freeman.

“I’m glad they’re doing it,” Freeman said. “I wish they’d done it sooner.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541 or eric.florip@columbian.com.