Coupeville intersection eyed for backup power

R2D2’s days are numbered

The power outages that plagued Whidbey Island this winter pointed out the dangers of the intersection at Main Street and Highway 20 in Coupeville.

The darkened intersection contributed to a severe auto accident late last year. During power outages, motorists often don’t see the intersection until they drive through it.

Those conditions prompted the state Department of Transportation to look at installing batteries at the intersection that would power the lights during electrical outages. Those power supplies could be installed sometime within the next six months.

Dina Swires, DOT traffic engineer, said she is still investigating different devices that would be a good fit for the intersection.

Town officials have been working to improve the safety at the intersection since last November when a father and his children suffered injuries when they drove into the intersection and another motorist failed to stop.

During a later power outage, Coupeville police officers pulled over dozens of motorists for running the intersection. Motorists are supposed to treat darkened intersections as four-way stops during power outages, but many motorists questioned said they didn’t notice the intersection until they drove through it. A pedestrian overpass distracts some drivers in the area.

Officers eventually rigged a four-way stoplight on top of a radar trailer and placed it in the intersection during power outages. Nicknamed “R2D2,” the unit did a great job lighting the intersection during the last power outage, but it didn’t have state approval.

Town officials were happy to see the DOT go to work to improve the intersection.

“They recognized we were serious in having some kind of alternative,” Mayor Nancy Conard said. The DOT has not only heard from the mayor, but also from town residents about the intersection.

The DOT hadn’t considered an emergency power supply in the past because the technology didn’t exist before, according to Swires.

The battery backup supply will cost between $6,000 and $7,000. A similar power supply on Highway 522 in Bothell powered an intersection for approximately eight hours, Swires said.

The backup power won’t last through longer power outages, however, it could give work crews enough time to come up with a solution to the problem.

Coupeville is a pilot program that could lead to more power supplies installed at stoplights along state highways.

DOT officials will start developing a priority list of intersections that will get the power supplies. The list could include other highway intersections on Whidbey Island, depending on how they are prioritized.

Swires said there are approximately 500 intersections in Island, Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish and King counties that have lights.

As for R2D2, it looks like his days are numbered. The DOT has safety concerns about a large trailer placed in the middle of a busy intersection.

Officials are worried that cars could collide with the trailer, and also about the safety of city employees who wheel it out to the intersection.

Rather than the big trailer, the DOT is looking to loan the town temporary, solar-powered flashers. Those flashers could be placed alongside the highway during power outages and help warn motorists of the coming intersection.

“We believe that would be a safer option for motorists and staff that have to set it up and take it down,” Swires said.