Q: What are the rules for turning left onto state Route 509 from Alexander Avenue East? Leslie H., Tacoma
A: To the uninitiated, Leslie’s question appears to be a simple one.
Let us assure you, gentle reader, it is not. Multiple factors combine to make that particular crossroads near the Port of Tacoma a perilous intersection indeed.
Before we tackle the specifics of Leslie’s question, let us first set the scene for those of you unfamiliar with that area.
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State Route 509, which connects Tacoma proper to Northeast Tacoma and points beyond, is a four-lane limited access freeway across the Tideflats. Speeds are high, and the road can be clogged in both directions during the afternoon rush, depending on what horror is happening on Interstate 5 that day.
Alexander Avenue East connects Pacific Highway East to the port, crossing Route 509 at a place where the northbound and southbound sections of the freeway are separated by what we here at Traffic Q&A headquarters guess is a couple hundred feet.
That means there is a stretch of Alexander Avenue that is sandwiched between the two lengths of Route 509, with a traffic light where northbound Alexander crosses that section of the freeway headed toward downtown Tacoma.
Still with us? Good.
Now, there are three northbound lanes of Alexander there, and they quickly get jammed up during times of heavy traffic. We have witnessed this ourselves.
Much of that traffic wants to head into Tacoma.
And therein lies the trouble. That left-turn lane has space for maybe only a half dozen cars, and many more than that want to turn left. Sometimes, the impatient turn to a, shall we say, creative solution.
We will let Leslie take it from here:
“Other drivers and I in the middle lane have turned left onto the right lane of 509, but sometimes the cars in the left-turn lane turn onto the right lane of 509.
“Is it legal for cars in the left-turn lane to turn onto the right lane of 509? Is it legal for cars in the middle of the three lanes on Alexander Avenue East to also turn left onto 509?
Oh, boy. Where to begin?
The rules of the road in Washington seem as good a place as any. As promulgated in the Washington Driver Guide under a section called, “Turning,” they require a driver turning from one street or road onto another to “Turn from the lane that is closest to the direction you want to go and turn into the lane closest to the one you came from.”
That means that if you are in the left-turn lane on Alexander Avenue, you must turn into the far left lane of southbound Route 509. If you then want to get into the right lane, you must first signal your intention to do so, check to see the coast is clear (including a glance at the blind spot!) and then, and only then, smoothly move over.
Now, about turning left out of that middle lane … DO NOT DO THAT!
Sorry to shout, but the middle lane there is not a turn lane, and people using it as such are endangering themselves and others.
That lane and the lane to the right are meant to carry traffic north into the port, said Cara Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.
We heard recently from another person about the dangers of turning left out of that middle lane.
“I was in the left-turn lane, and there were a truck and a car to my right, in the lane that is not a left-turn lane but goes straight through to the Port of Tacoma. Unbeknownst to me, those people were actually turning left onto the freeway because they could not fit into the left-hand turn lane. So when I turned left, they were right beside me and almost sideswiped my car. This is an ongoing, daily occurrence.”
Sounds like a visit from the State Patrol might be advisable.