Editorial: Local control over speed limits is vital

Over the last few decades, there’s been a lot of lively debate about speed limits posted on Whidbey Island roads. Usually, there’s a neighborhood group that wants speed limits lowered on a particular stretch of road that residents feel is dangerous. On the other side, traffic engineers like to set speeds based on data and national standards, which sometimes means limits are higher than the neighbors like. Ultimately, it’s up to elected officials to decide whether to listen to concerned citizens or engineers. Just last year, the Island County commissioners unanimously decided to lower the speed limit on a section of West Beach Road, against the recommendation of the engineer and after years of rejections by former commissioners.

It may seem like an inconsistent and clunky way to set speed limits, but it’s really the best system for maintaining local control over the shape — and speed — of the community. There might be a unique aspect of a neighborhood that traffic studies can’t address. Unfortunately, counties and municipal governments don’t have control over speeds on state highways.

An Oak Harbor City Council member asked last week to have speed limits studied on Highway 20 near Wal-Mart, but the engineer told him he doesn’t have authority to do so. For years, Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard has asked the state Department of Transportation to lower the speed on Highway 20 as it passed through the belly of the small town. The state agreed to do a traffic study in 2005, but the limit remains at 55 mph. It’s common to see people, often women pushing baby carriages, dashing across the highway west of town to get to the Kettles Trail.

Thursday morning, a confused man was struck and killed as he was walking on the stretch of the highway near Coupeville. A lower speed limit may not have prevented the tragedy, but it’s a reminder of how dangerous that area can be. Town and city officials can learn a thing or two from all those concerned neighborhood groups that have fought to have speed limits reduced. Talk to state officials, make a strong case, and if all else fails, raise a stink until you get your way.

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