Maxine Herbert-Hill has a hard time leaving her neighborhood.
If you drive state Route 162 between Sumner and Orting in the mornings and evenings, you might know why: A wall of traffic.
“Right now, we’re able to get in and out of our streets because of the traffic lights,” said Herbert-Hill.
She’s used to it. As a third-generation Puyallup Valley resident whose dad grew daffodils, she’s lived along the 50-mile-per-hour highway all her life.
She fears matters will get worse with newly proposed roundabouts.
The roundabouts were a result of a SR 162 corridor study in 2017 by the Washington State Department of Transportation, meant to develop long-term plans to mitigate traffic along a six-mile stretch of highway.
Two roundabouts were proposed at the Route 162 and Route 410 interchange. Other roundabouts are proposed at 128th Street and Military Road.
“Roundabouts are one of those identified strategies that stood out over signals based on the resulting data from models and intersection-control evaluations,” WSDOT spokeswoman Cara Mitchell said.
Herbert-Hill isn’t on board with WSDOT’s plan, which she says fails to mitigate traffic and threatens farmers and residents along Route 162 by trapping them from getting out. It also will discourage people from stopping at businesses for fear of getting stuck, she said.
The farming economy and identity of the valley are at stake, Herbert-Hill said.
She isn’t the only one with concerns. Herbert-Hill, her husband, Dave Hill, and area residents Dan Neyens and Robert Sudderth formed the SR 162 Community Group last fall to get their voices heard about traffic along the state highway.
Group leaders created a website, sr162traffic.org. More than 400 people have joined the group on Facebook.
The group has proposed solutions of its own to mitigate traffic: a middle turn lane to get cars out of the flow of traffic and expanded shoulders for emergency vehicles and farmers using tractors.
“The traffic management plan the state chooses will decide whether this rural community and its profitable farms will be protected, or will be lost forever,” members of the group wrote in a presentation to the state.
On average, Route 162 sees roughly 20,000 vehicles per day in both directions from the Route 410 interchange to Williams Boulevard in Orting, according to a WSDOT study. If no action is taken, that could double by 2035.
Where are all these cars coming from?
Many of them will come from the east — specifically, from Tehaleh, home to nearly 4,000 people on the Bonney Lake plateau. Over the next 20 years, Tehaleh is projected to grow to 4,700 acres with more than 9,000 homes.
Currently, there’s only one road out of Tehaleh on 198th Avenue East, through Bonney Lake.
Because of its growth, Tehaleh is building a new road out of its development called Rhodes Lake Road.
It will join with 128th Street East at the intersection of Route 162, and with it will come a slew of new cars.
“This new highway will add over 1,000 vehicles per hour,” said Herbert-Hill, citing calculations based on documents from WSDOT and Transpogroup, a planning firm that worked with Tehaleh developers.
There’s no stopping the Rhodes Lake Rhodes, Hill said — it’s going to be built.
“We’ve realized the congestion that comes with the growth that’s already happened. We’re going to have to live with that,” he said. “There’s really no solution for that. The best thing we can do is try to minimize its impact by creating safer conditions.”
That’s where disagreement over the proposed roundabout comes in.
ROUNDABOUTS VS. SIGNALS
It’s a common controversy: roundabouts or signals?
Some, like WSDOT, support roundabouts in this case.
“Roundabouts outperform signals in terms of reducing crash severity, improvements to how the intersection operates, reduces traffic queues and reduces long-term maintenance costs,” Mitchell said.
According to its analysis, WSDOT expects the number of crashes along Route 162 to drop by 45 percent. Between 2011 and 2015, 409 crashes occurred on the Route 162 corridor. None of those crashes were fatal. Four were considered “serious injury” crashes, while 282 were rear-end type crashes.
Crossing intersections would take less time, according to WSDOT, saving three seconds at Military Road and about 18 seconds at 128th Street East in the morning peak hour. In the afternoon peak hour, commuters would save 91 seconds and 20 seconds at Military Road and 128th Street intersections, while a signal would do nothing to shorten times.
SR 162 Community Group members worry about vehicles coming east from Tehaleh blocking the flow of traffic heading north and south.
“Here, you have a tremendous amount of traffic going north and south,” Hill said.
Trucks from a nearby gravel company are also continually passing through the intersection. Opponents worry they could take up lanes and further stall traffic flow.
Those roundabouts could become life-threatening during lahar evacuations, Hill said.
“Once a lahar warning goes off, the county has an evacuation plan where the roads become one way away from Orting to the next highest access route… The roundabouts would be a choke point for that,” he said.
Mitchell, the WSDOT spokeswoman, said that roundabouts would help evacuation.
“If anything, roundabouts would improve traffic flow along a lahar evacuation route because you would not have a signal to disengage that would slow traffic down,” she said.
While Route 162 is under state controle, Pierce County conducted a supplemental environmental impact study that recommended signals rather than roundabouts.
“We stand by those studies,” said County Councilman Dave Morell, who added that he thinks roundabouts aren’t right for Route 162.
East Pierce Fire & Rescue isn’t opposed to roundabouts. At three lanes, WSDOT’s proposed roundabouts are wide enough for the department’s vehicles to get through.
“Roundabouts do NOT slow us down any more than a traffic light or stop sign does,” Chief Bud Backer told The Herald in an email. “ Even though we might have a green light, we must still slow to control the intersection due to all the people that run red lights.”
William Potthoff provides another viewpoint — he’s a pastor at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, located at the 128th Street and Route 162 intersection. He said he’s heard about the roundabout plans and wonders how it would affect access to the church.
“Parking is the biggest problem we have right now,” he told The Herald. “...If it comes right up to the church, it’d be a bad thing. It’d take up all of our parking.”
All parties agree on one thing: Something needs to be done to tackle traffic on Route 162.
“It definitely needs changes,” Morell said. “It’s kind of turning into the new Meridian.”
He added the county plans to look at improvements to the feeder roads along the highway.
Currently, legislators are deciding whether to add language in the transportation budget acknowledging Pierce County’s recommendation of signals rather than roundabouts.
SR 162 Community Group leaders are urging their members to write to legislators with concerns.
They believe something can be done to address future growth while preserving farmland.
It’s a fine balance that grows harder by the day.
“Every legislator, every politician, every person in power — they will stand up and salute the idea that we need to protect and save our farmland to the greatest extent possible,” said SR 162 Community Group member Bob Sudderth. “We realize that someday, with more and more people moving in the area, that’s gonna be more and more difficult.
“But now is not the time to say, ‘Heck with the valley,’ and cover it with asphalt.”