Traffic Q&A: Nothing speedy about changing speed limits

Question: I see the state is raising the speed limits along stat Route 16 near Union Avenue and Pearl Street in Tacoma.

It’s going to 50 miles per hour from 40 in one place and up to 60 in another. That makes sense given that nearly nobody previously kept to the lower limits.

How did the state come to recognizing the obvious and change the limits?

— DRM, Fircrest

Answer: Ask the state, and the answer is that faster legal driving on Route 16 in Tacoma has long been in the works, even if the actual change moved at the speed of bureaucracy instead of at highway velocity.

“Our plan all along was to raise SR 16 speed limits near Union Avenue once construction of the westbound and eastbound Nalley Valley viaduct projects were completed,” Claudia Bingham Baker, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, wrote in an email.

Unwind that a bit and you’ll see a glimpse of how government works.

The Transportation Department website tells us that the big mission-accomplished moment — with speeches at a podium — for Route 16’s eastbound Nalley Valley project happened in summer 2014. It followed work on a westbound viaduct that opened in June 2011.

(A third, related job involves HOV lanes connecting to Interstate 5 and is to be done 2019ish, according to the website.)

So the road opened in August 2014, and yet speed limits — which were raised over the weekend — were 14 months later in changing.

One might think, right here: Isn’t that just a matter of switching out some road signs? Shouldn’t they have had those painted up and ready to plug in if it was always the plan?

One answer is that there’s plans and then there’s government.

Perhaps less cynically, consider that in traffic engineering, the difference between the plan on paper and rubber meeting road could easy get folks very badly hurt. We’ll point here to Galloping Gertie’s remnants, currently a renowned octopus habitat at the bottom of the Tacoma Narrows.

The state tends to take a measure-twice-cut-once approach to matters of allowing us to cut loose a little on the open road.

Recall back in the spring that Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill allowing 75 mile per hour speed limits on stretches of open highway if engineers found the road safe enough to handle it.

Six months later, the state has put up exactly zero 75 mph signs on Washington roadsides.

The Transportation Department, the Traffic Safety Commission and the Washington State Patrol are sorting out the criteria for allowing that, Bingham Baker wrote.

“Once those criteria are defined, they will look at the highway system to see which highways meet them,” she wrote. “They are several months away from making any decisions.”

Inslee’s message in signing that bill — he vetoed a section that found a piece of Interstate 90 already good for 75 mph driving — called for “a thorough safety assessment” before increasing allowable speeds. That’s how you get a long process.

In the case of state Route 16, there’s a Transportation Department memo dated May 12 that states the State Patrol and Transportation officials were already on board with speeding up the highway.

Five months later, it came through. That’s in the typical three- to six-month ballpark such changes usually require, according to Bingham Baker.

“We monitored traffic behavior after the construction was done and implemented the change when scheduling and resources allowed,” she wrote.

We requested information from the State Patrol on how many speeding tickets were issued on that stretch of state Route16 during those months. It has not yet been received.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693