The state Department of Transportation is on track to make safety improvements to the Morse Creek area of U.S. Highway 101, with plans to possibly reduce the speed limit and add a landscaped, boulevard safety-barrier to the crash-prone, sweeping curve.
Construction is expected to begin as early as 2021, Olympic Region manager John Wynands said last week.
The state Legislature earlier this year set aside $1 million for design of the 8-inch curb-divider east of Port Angeles.
Then DOT lowered the $5 million cost estimate to $3.6 million and found $2 million in the agency’s safety program to complete the job, Wynands said.
Wynands said that as of April, after more than 250 crashes between 2007 and 2019, the curve improvement had become the top-rated safety project in the region.
The Olympic Region comprises 1.6 million residents in Thurston, Pierce, Kitsap, Jefferson, Grays Harbor and Clallam counties. Clallam has 75,000 residents.
The cost estimate was lowered by $1.4 million after surveyors scoped out the 1-mile stretch just east of the Port Angeles Walmart.
“Once we start surveying, we can start creating models and deciding how much we need here and there,” Wynands said.
Wynands visited Clallam and Jefferson counties Oct. 2-3 during a two-day trip by the legislative Joint Transportation Committee.
There were more than a dozen committee members on the trip including 24th District state Rep. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles, and 35 DOT staffers and other participants.
It included a stop in Jefferson County and more than two hours of presentations at the Red Lion Hotel in Port Angeles.
“WSDOT plans to construct a raised, center median and targeted speed limit reduction along a roughly one-mile stretch of U.S. 101 to reduce the probability and severity of injury-collisions,” according to a DOT project-overview handout to the group, being transported in a full-size passenger bus.
A construction contract for the project will be advertised in fall 2020, according to the handout. Construction is anticipated to begin in spring of the following year and be completed in fall 2021, according to the handout.
A community outreach plan will be put together by early 2020 that will help determine aspects of the project such as reducing the speed limit from 45 mph to 40 mph between milepost 251.7 near East Kolonels Way and milepost 252.7 near Deer Park Road.
The plan is to lower the speed limit, but that plan is not set in stone, Wynands said.
“Our plan is to look at this. None of this has been decided.”
The speed limit would lower from 45 mph to 40 mph on Highway 101 east of East Kolonels Way and through the Morse Creek curve.
Westbound drivers approaching Port Angeles east to west on the other side of the Morse Creek curve would lower their speeds from 55 mph on Highway 101 to 40 at the curve, the outset of which is already a law enforcement speed trap.
“There will be plenty of advance signing that there are lower speeds ahead,” Wynands said.
The 8-inch curb at the base of a steep dip in the road will deflect errant vehicles, keeping drivers in their lanes, and will be difficult to drive over unless a driver hits it at a 90-degree angle, Wynands said.
The curb and landscaped boulevard are meant to act on drivers’ perception of where they are driving.
“It’s not a freeway there, and we want people to not be thinking they are driving on a freeway,” Wynands said.
“It’s not just the physical barrier, it’s that feeling of not being on a freeway that you get with a boulevard-style median, that you’re in a different element.”
The push for the improvements was initiated by the family of 19-year-old Brooke Bedinger.
The Sequim High School graduate died in a motorcycle wreck on the sharpest part of the curve June 21, 2018.
Bedinger’s memorial of flowers, like all such memorials considered by DOT to be an unauthorized roadside object, was to be removed this summer from near the crash site but remained in place Friday.
DOT spokesperson Tina Werner said last week the memorial will be taken down soon, after two small signs are manufactured.
They will face eastbound and westbound motorists to honor Bedinger’s memory — and warn drivers to watch for motorcyclists.
DOT was getting about five calls a month complaining that the memorial, effusively adorned with flowers and a cross, was diverting drivers’ attention from navigating the curve.
“We don’t want to cause more collisions and accidents because of what may appear to be a distraction on the side of the highway,” Werner said.
“Hopefully, that will allow the family and the community to have some sense of closure.”