Whatcom council OKs Lakeway crosswalk, but concern remains about legal risk

A crosswalk on Lakeway Drive is on Whatcom County’s to-do list for 2015, even though the County Council might expose the county to lawsuits by building it.

The council had a routine item on its agenda for Tuesday, Oct. 28: Approve the annual construction program, a prioritized list of county road projects for 2015. The vote to approve the list of 42 projects, costing more than $25 million, was unanimous — but only after a close vote to add the crosswalk, at or near Parkstone Lane.

The crosswalk vote was 4 to 3, with council members Rud Browne, Sam Crawford and Carl Weimer opposed. Tuesday’s vote does not guarantee the crosswalk will be built.

A majority of council members were moved by a petition delivered in July 2013 by the Parkstone Community Association, requesting the crosswalk. Pedestrians outside the city limits have no marked crossings on Lakeway for a 1.3-mile stretch, from Birch Street to the Firs Retreat Center.

More homes are proposed on land above Parkstone, and they are designed for “families with multiple children,” Parkstone resident Carol Sheppard said at a council committee meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 28.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Sheppard said. “We don’t want to dodge cars across Lakeway.”

Council said safety is a top priority, and it approved $300,000 for the crosswalk to cover “any of the bells and whistles,” including flashing yellow lights, that it might require, as council member Barbara Brenner said. The area under consideration for a crosswalk winds through hills, limiting drivers’ sight distances. Cars on that 1.3-mile stretch often exceed the 35 mph speed limit.

County Engineer Joe Rutan recommended that council not build a crosswalk at three likely locations: Parkstone Lane, Oriental Avenue and Euclid Avenue.

Counts conducted by the county this spring at the three intersections were no higher than seven pedestrians in four hours. The lowest threshold an intersection must meet to qualify for a crosswalk is 20 pedestrians per hour.

“You’re not even close,” Rutan said in an interview on Wednesday, Oct. 29. “The data here is telling me this is a ‘do not do.’ And that’s why I feel uncomfortable with this.”

Signing off on a crosswalk that isn’t justified by the traffic data could expose the county to lawsuits, Rutan said.

“You know who gets sued? Not the county, me. I’m personally liable,” Rutan said.

County Executive Jack Louws said he would sign the approval for the crosswalk instead of Rutan.

Crawford was the council member most vocally opposed to the crosswalk.

“This intersection (Parkstone) has zero history of traffic accidents. None,” Crawford said. “You put any kind of traffic control there, with the curves and the limited sight distance, we’re going to create traffic accidents.”

Rutan said he is in an awkward position, being asked to give the council a preferred crosswalk option when his research indicates there is none. The request is like being asked which arm you would like to have cut off, Rutan said.

“Any decision they make, we’ll go carry it out,” Rutan said. “They’re going to ask me if this is safe, and I will refer back to the data I provided them.”