The Most Unsafe, Congested Thurston County Roads, According to a New Study


An in-progress study has identified rural roads where Thurston County should prioritize safety and traffic flow improvements.

The Thurston County Mobility Strategy Study has developed a list of three priority corridors and 14 intersections where improvements should be made, said Aidan Dixon, associate planner for the Thurston County Regional Planning Council.

Dixon updated the Board of County Commissioners on the study earlier this month. This update came about three years after the Thurston County Public Works partnered with the Thurston Regional Planning Council (TRPC) on the study.

Congestion on Thurston County’s rural arterial roadways is expected to get worse in the decades ahead, according to county documents. Dixon said this study narrowed a list of priority corridors and intersections after initially studying 71 rural intersections countywide.

The three corridors of concern include a 3.6-mile portion of Bald Hill Road southeast of Yelm, a 2.9-mile portion of Rainier Road southeast of East Olympia and a 0.9-mile portion of Johnson Point Road north of Lacey.

Dixon said there were six collisions in which a person was killed or seriously injured (KSI) on Bald Hill Road between 2010 and 2019. Meanwhile, there were seven on Rainier Road and five on Johnson Point Road.

About 71% of KSI collisions in that time period occurred on road corridors rather than at intersections, Dixon said. He said half of all KSI incidents involved collisions with fixed objects rather than moving vehicles, and 28% involved alcohol or drug-impaired drivers.

Matt Unzelman, interim county engineer, said most serious collisions in rural areas occur on corridors, whereas cities usually see such collisions at intersections.

“That’s just because on county roads, typically people are driving faster,” Unzelman said. “If you depart the road when you’re driving fast, then you hit an adjacent power pole or tree, unfortunately it’s not going to be good.”

Staff scored the 14 Intersections on the list based on several equally weighted performance measures, Dixon said. These measures including their level of service, safety concerns, and equity factors as well as population and employment density.

The intersections were ranked in the following order with the worst at the top.

• Old Pacific Highway Southeast and Reservation Road

• Bald Hill Road and Vail Road

• 26th Avenue Northeast and Sleater Kinney Road

• Rainier Road and Fir Tree Road Southeast

• Rich Road and Old Highway 99 Southeast

• Sargent Road and 183rd Avenue Southwest

• Bald Hill Road and Lawrence Lake Road Southeast

• Vail Road and Hannus Road Southeast

• Old Highway 9 and James Road Southwest

• Vail Road and 153rd Avenue Southeast

• Old Highway 99 Southwest and Prather Road

• Vail Road and 148th Avenue Southeast

• Old Highway 99 and 183rd Avenue Southwest

• 26th Avenue Northeast and South Bay Road

Thurston County Manager Ramiro Chavez questioned how equity concerns where being meaningfully factored into the study. County Commissioner Gary Edwards followed that up by saying he didn’t see how equity mattered on this topic.

“Why should we water down the importance of equity by trying to squeeze it into something that it has no effect on?” Edwards said.

Karen Parkhurst, planning and policy director for TRPC, said staff are looking at demographic data to understand how transportation projects may affect different populations.

As an example, she said a congested area may see more emissions that affect a local population more than others. They also consider the safety of pedestrians who do not drive for various reasons, she added.

Parkhurst said equity has been emphasized in recent years and many people are still figuring out how to best approach it. She then called on the county to work with TRPC on making equity considerations more relevant.

“We all want to go beyond checking the box and we want to have true consideration,” Parkhurst said. “And when we do the outreach, we’re trying to reach out to people that have not necessarily participated in our process. So, please help us all as we figure out how this works.”

The study is still in progress. Dixon said staff must still develop an action plan to implement and monitor potential improvements. This plan will include specific cost estimates and a funding strategy, he said.

Additionally, Dixon said staff will create a public website for the project and conduct public outreach to potentially affected communities.

The study is largely being paid for by federal transportation funds. About $300,000 in federal funds and $46,821 in local matching funds were budgeted for the study in 2020, according to county documents.

Unzelman said the results of the study will give county Public Works a list of achievable projects. It also will be used to update the county’s transportation improvement plan and factor into the larger comprehensive plan update.