The politics of rumble strips: Making government work | Editorial

King County made the right move in ending its misbegotten rumble strip project on Vashon.

Rumble strips make sense on long, lonely stretches of highway, where drivers — often zipping along at a fast clip — can zone out from the monotony of the empty road. But they make little sense on Vashon’s main arterial, a road that’s a mere 13.5 miles from one end to the other and that includes stops, curves, hills and a couple of commercial districts.

What’s more, as Vashon’s cyclists pointed out, the project appeared to violate the terms of the federal grant that financed it: According to those guidelines, roadways should be milled only if these warning devices “do not adversely affect the safety or mobility of bicyclists, pedestrians and the disabled.” There’s ample anecdotal evidence to suggest that rumble strips had an adverse effect on some Islanders’ safety and mobility.

As several cyclists have noted in the days following the county’s surprise announcement, this is a remarkable and rare turn of events by a government agency. It’s not often that an agency says, in effect, “We were wrong.” According to Steve Abel in a news release issued by BikeVashon, “(County Executive) Dow Constantine’s leadership and willingness to listen shows how government can work for residents across King County.”

He may be right. Our one concern is this: Would residents in a less politically astute, less well-connected community get the same response that Vashon did?

We hope so. We hope this decision wasn’t made for political reasons, but for policy ones. We hope that any community, regardless of their political clout, can get county officials to listen — and to change course if community members put forth a compelling argument.

This is not to denigrate the hard work of several Islanders, who thoughtfully and sometimes aggressively took on the county over this project. They organized. They researched. They wrote letters. And they turned to those elected to represent them — including Sen. Sharon Nelson and King County Councilmember Joe McDermott — to support them in the effort.

Indeed, what Vashon cyclists learned about rumble strips will now likely be applied elsewhere, when other communities face the potential of these strips on their roads. Vashon’s cycling community grew up in the course of this effort; some members will likely extend their leadership to other parts of the county.

The problem with decisions made for political reasons — as opposed to policy ones — is that it means those who have access, clout and connections are more likely to prevail than those who don’t.

Abel says this final chapter in Vashon’s rumble strip controversy shows “how government can work for residents across King County.” That’s certainly true on Vashon. We hope other communities are equally successful.


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