The impact of state budget cuts on road safety

When a chunk of I-5 pavement flew up and smashed through the windshield of a car carrying a family of four, the dangers of Washington’s crumbling roadways became all too real. The family was headed down I-5 near Northgate on Saturday when a brick-sized concrete panel came off the road, crashed through the car’s windshield and hit the father who was in the passenger seat. His wife was driving the vehicle and their son and daughter were in the back seat.

“The rock hit me so hard in the chest, it literally took my breath away,” the man said. He had to have stitches on his chin and inside his mouth. His chin and chest were also severely bruised by the piece of pavement.

Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond said road crews built much of the interstate in the 1960s, and more than 50 years of heavy use has taken its toll. Hammond said the agency doesn’t have the staff or cash to fix everything that’s falling apart, and the statewide to-do list just keeps getting bigger. “As our transportation system has more wear and tear on it, and as we go longer without revenue dollars to just take care of the system that we have, we’re unfortunately going to see more of this kind of thing,” she said.

“What we’re seeing is more deteriorating concrete panels…Unfortunately, to replace all the panels on I-5 in King County has a price tag of $2 billion,” said Lorena Eng, also with Wash DOT. There are 350 concrete panels for every mile of I-5. In terms of the funding, Eng said the Department doesn’t have anywhere near the amount needed to replace the aging panels. So in the mean time, they’re focused on fixing what she calls “the worst of the worst.” Road crews laid down a temporary patch within hours of this incident, and Hammond said her agency will review the case to see if that stretch of road was slated for repairs. The state plans to spend $170 million to repair I-5 between now and 2024, state officials said. However, Wash DOT won’t receive the bulk of money until 2016.

Pieces of the roadway and parts that fall off of vehicles are a constant problem, a state trooper said. “Many times, we’ve received calls that people believe that their car had been shot at, for instance,” she said. “Road debris is a huge problem, (including) things falling off of vehicles.”

Put a motorcycle in that situation and the dangers are even more pronounced. “Unfortunately, motorcyclists have a lot of hazards to deal with. Something that can be just a simple bump in the road for us is something that can take them off their vehicles if it’s substantial enough. So any kind of flying debris is a huge concern,” she added.

The state and municipalities have a duty to maintain safe roadways. Where an injury occurs due to an unsafe condition that they knew or should have known about prior to the injury, the injured person may be entitled to recovery for the injury.