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Dockton Road project raises tough issues

The nearly one-mile stretch of King County roadway that hugs Tramp Harbor is a vexing dilemma to those who pay attention to such things.

It’s a narrow and picturesque road that is also incredibly unsafe. The seawall that holds it up is old, timbered and at risk of failing.

And at a time when public agencies are working hard to restore Puget Sound, it represents yet another insult to salmon and other marine life — an armored shoreline where once there was natural beach.

Now, county officials are working with a group of Islanders, their own personnel and a newly hired engineering firm to figure out Dockton Road’s fate. On the table is everything from closing it altogether to spending more than $30 million to rebuild it, with a cantilevered sidewalk overhanging Tramp Harbor to provide safe pedestrian access.

County officials say the need to act is great. The road is considered one of the most vulnerable stretches of highway in all of unincorporated King County.

Just last winter, Gwen Lewis, the project manager in the King County Roads Department, noted, the road had to be closed three times because of landslides and other problems.

“If it was your house and your house failed three times, you’d probably begin to get the message,” she said.

Waves that crash over the seawall scour out the gravel that forms the road’s infrastructure, she said, and as a result, a sink hole could suddenly appear some night — a hazard to an unsuspecting driver.

“We’re talking about human lives here,” she said. “Our parents ... dealt with this the best they could. I guess it’s our turn to deal with it for the next generation.”

But some Islanders close to the process — including a few members of the community advisory group that the county empaneled — say they question just how open county officials are to anything other than a highly engineered rebuild of the road.

Four Islanders who sought to be on the community advisory group — all conservationists concerned about salmon — were among those not selected for the panel. And a few of those on the 12-member committee say it seems clear that the idea of closing down the road and creating a trail or promenade is already off the table.

“My initial thought was there would be more opportunity for the public to craft what would happen down there,” said Kyle Cruver, a member of the community advisory group. “But I think the reality is that the transportation department is interested in a long-term solution that doesn’t involve a lot of maintenance.”

“There isn’t a tremendously environmental bent to the discussions,” he added.

Michael Ryan, whose home is the only one with a driveway off this stretch of road, said he, too, gets the impression that the county is leaning towards a rebuild of the road.

“The road’s going to stay there; it’s just a matter of how you shape it,” he said. “I think most of the pressure’s going that direction.”

County officials, however, say it’s not at all clear how the project will unfold. They just awarded a contract to KPFF Engineers to explore five possible options and to work with the county to develop a preferred alternative. As part of its process, the firm will assess the engineering costs and feasibility of the various options; explore the environmental, cultural and geologic implications; and find out where the community stands on the issue.

“I think this is something that the people who live .. out there as a community ... really need to discuss,” Lewis said. “We have the engineering, the tools, the savvy to make it happen. But I’m leaving that open to hear more from the community. I don’t have a viewpoint formed at this time.”

Barbara de Michele, who handles community relations for the county’s department of transportation, concurred.

“We’ve repeatedly said that every option is on the table.”

By almost any analysis, the 92-year-old Dockton Road is an anomaly, an engineering feat that wouldn’t be built today.

Beloved by drivers, the road snakes between Tramp Harbor and a steep, alder-studded bank, offering up breathtaking views. Eagles routinely perch on the old pilings in the harbor, and great blue herons patrol the shore; even river otters are sometimes glimpsed in the slate-gray water.

It also is a major throughway. Some 3,000 cars traverse it every day, according to county traffic studies. And on occasion, it provides the only access to Maury — on those winter days when the tides are high and the water so rough that waves overtop Quartermaster Drive.

What’s more, were it to close, other roads — and other neighborhoods — would suddenly bear the brunt of increased traffic.

Ryan said some of the people on the panel who represent the interests of residents of Quartermaster Drive and Monument Road are vociferous in their opposition to closing Dockton Road.

“There are people who live on Quartermaster who would absolutely refuse to see this road closed because all the traffic would go there,” he said.

“I don’t think Vashon would allow that to happen,” Ryan added. “People on Quartermaster, Monument and Maury don’t want that to happen.”

But Tom Dean, who heads the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust, said he thinks the road project offers a remarkable opportunity for the Island to rethink its relationship to Tramp Harbor and create something truly special for the Island. Imagine, he said, a promenade next to a driftwood-strewn beach, similar to the one at Lincoln Park, which is wide enough for cyclists and walkers as well as the occasional emergency vehicle.

What’s more, he said, the effort to restore Puget Sound demands what he called “a good-faith study” to explore such an option. A cantilevered sidewalk over deep water is bad for juvenile salmon, which need shallow waters to escape their predators; a walled shoreline where the water is deep and shaded makes them very vulnerable, he said.

Dean applied to be on the community advisory group but wasn’t selected; other members of his board — including Lisa Jaguzny and Chip Giller, who lives on Maury a block from Portage — as well as Erik Steffens, an Islander who works for The Nature Conservancy, also asked to be on the panel but weren’t chosen.

The advisory panel, he said, seems stacked with people representing nearby neighborhoods.

“My concern is that the no-build option is designed for public failure,” he said.

The 4,000 feet of hardened shoreline, especially if it’s made worse by a cantilevered sidewalk, is arguably more ecologically damaging than anything Glacier Northwest is trying to do on the eastern flank of Maury Island, he added.

“There’s a chance for meaningful restoration if Islanders would go along with it,” Dean said.

Cruver, a member of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council’s board of directors, said he, too, is disappointed in the lack of creativity he’s seeing in the meetings the group has had to date. At a couple of meetings, Cruver has advocated a one-way road with vegetated buffers, a softer approach than a two-lane road with a sidewalk and guardrails. But his suggestions, he said, have not been well-received.

“The response is usually why this won’t work,” he said.

At the last meeting, county officials brought visuals of what Cruver called the “highly engineered” approach — with the cantilevered sidewalk. “The other options weren’t even visually represented,” he said.

But county officials said there’s still ample time for people such as Dean, Jaguzny and Giller to weigh in on the road’s future. A meeting of stakeholders, involving people with technical skills or backgrounds, will be held likely sometime this summer, de Michele said. Community meetings will also be held before the county issues its preferred decision sometime next year.

“We need more community input,” Lewis, the project manager, said. “One person may have shoreline concerns. Others want to drive the road, fish the pier or ride their horse on the beach. It’s a balance. ... We aren’t in this world alone.”

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