Transforming Highway 99: Project aimed at improving traffic safety, but will it reduce crime too?

Firefighters respond to a two-car injury crash in the 22100 block of Highway 99 in April 2017.

Part 4 in our series on the planned transformation of Highway 99 through Edmonds. You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

Making Highway 99 a safer place is a key component of a city plan to revitalize the two-and-one-quarter-mile stretch of roadway running through Edmonds.

“Really the improvements are, number one, for safety,” said City of Edmonds Economic and Community Services Director Patrick Doherty of the city’s plan to inject millions of dollars into improving the roadway, which runs from 244th Street Southwest to 210th Street Southwest.

At the forefront of early design plans is traffic safety. One of the most problematic issues facing drivers is unrestricted left turns in the Highway 99 center lane, through Edmonds, which contribute to car crashes. Access to numerous driveways also add to the problem as people turn across traffic to enter and exit.

Planning work conducted by consultant SCJ Alliance – hired last summer by the city council to develop a corridor plan – indicates that roadway improvements can reduce those crashes on the Edmonds section of highway, which serves 40,000 cars and trucks each day. Other safety-related changes on the horizon as part of the initial plan include wider replacement sidewalks, new street lighting, raised center medians, and safer crosswalks.

Traffic safety was also at the forefront when the City of Shoreline in 2005 launched its Aurora Corridor Project, which redeveloped three miles of the roadway running from 145th Street to the King-Snohomish County line at 205th/244th Street Southwest.

Aurora Corridor traffic safety improvements included landscaped center medians with left- and u-turn pockets. (Photo courtesy City of Shoreline)

The Shoreline project, which included wider sidewalks, landscaping and other amenities, traffic- and pedestrian-level lighting and landscaped center medians with left- and u-turn pockets, is serving as a model for Edmonds Highway 99 improvements.

According to City of Shoreline traffic collision data, total vehicle crashes decreased an average of 34 percent along the Shoreline stretch of Aurora/Highway 99 from 2003 to 2016, the year when the project was nearly completed.

Whether the planned Edmonds Highway 99 improvements will have much impact on public safety and crime overall is less clear. The City of Shoreline said it doesn’t track crime data specifically along Aurora Avenue, so it’s unknown whether the recent roadway improvements had any effect on crime in the area.

The scene at Golden West Motel after a police standoff in April 2018. A man armed with knives threw numerous items through a motel window before officers were able to take him into custody. (Photo courtesy Edmonds police)

Edmonds police spokesman Sgt. Shane Hawley noted that highways in general are magnets for transient-related activities, and Highway 99 is no different. Low-cost motels for people passing through are havens for drug dealing and related crimes like robbery, burglary and prostitution. And it’s unknown whether any of those motels will go away once the Highway 99 revitalization is complete.

Shoreline Economic Development Director Dan Eernissee said that Aurora Avenue construction did not displace the low-cost lodging there. However, he believes there are related benefits to sprucing up the highway.

“Aesthetically, I think criminal behavior and so forth doesn’t like to be in the prettiest places,” Eernissee added. “I think there’s an underlying positive about having the new look, and businesses appreciate the improvements.”

Many of the Edmonds Highway 99 crimes are the focus of the police department’s street crimes unit, which Hawley estimates spends about 50 percent of its time on Highway 99, focused on burglary, robbery, street-level narcotics and prostitution.

In 2017, police responded to a total of 4,141 incidents on the highway. The majority of those – 1,568 – were traffic-related complaints (for example, speeding tickets) and another 285 were vehicle collisions. Police also were called to 668 incidents categorized as suspicious circumstances, which include any situation where people report something that they deem “suspicious” in nature. In addition, there were 141 theft calls and 103 disturbance calls.

A stolen car (right) and the vehicle it collided with (left) at 76th Avenue West and Highway 99 in September 2016. (My Edmonds News file photo)

For comparison purposes, those 4,141 total calls in 2017 represented 13 percent of the city’s police call volume of 31,551 in 2017. But that’s significant when you consider that neighborhoods in the immediate vicinity of Highway 99 include a small residential population of about 2,500 — 6.3 percent of Edmonds’ 40,000 residents.

Robert Elder, who manages a multifamily property just off Highway 99 in Edmonds, says condominium owners who live in his complex face different challenges than those living in other parts of Edmonds. Criminal activity, often influenced by those staying at nearby motels, can spill over into nearby neighborhoods.

He began emailing city councilmembers, the mayor and police chief after his 6-year-old son picked up a needle while the two were walking along the Interurban Trail just a few blocks off Highway 99.

“Nothing was ever done,” Elder said. “All they did for the next week or so was send more police in the area.”

Elder said he believes that Edmonds police do the best they can to patrol Highway 99 with the resources they have available. But he thinks the neighborhoods near the highway deserves better from city government. It would be a big help, he said, to re-establish the police department’s crime prevention unit, which the city discontinued several years ago due to budget cuts. He’d also like to see the city place a greater emphasis on local outreach events outside downtown and the Edmonds Bowl, such as neighborhood-based National Night Out activities, to bring community members together. The Edmonds Police Foundation used to sponsor a centralized National Night Out event in downtown Edmonds, but that event is no longer held.

A police SWAT sniper stands on the roof of a house next door to the residence behind Highway 99’s Ranch Market in 2015. The residence was occupied by a car theft suspect during an April 2015 standoff. (My Edmonds News file photo)

The motels that dot Highway 99 all have their share of problems related to criminal activity, according to police. But the severity and frequency of those problems depend on who is staying there at the time, said Edmonds Police Sgt. Alan Hardwick, a 17-year department veteran. It’s also true that the motels can provide low-cost temporary housing for individuals and families who have nowhere else to go, he added.

As he drove along the highway during his day shift last summer, Hardwick explained that a common crime police see on Highway 99 is shoplifting. “They either don’t have the money to pay for the items or they are stealing to sell,” Hardwick said of the shoplifters. He related an example from the day before, when police responded to a call from the Safeway store that a 61-year-old woman had stolen six bottles of vodka.

“She wouldn’t stop for the (Safeway) loss prevention guy,” Hardwick said. “She kept on going faster and faster. She had a walker with her inside (the store) but suddenly the walker was gone. She was scooting right along carrying her bag – five bottles of Absolute and (one of) Ketel One.”

The woman finally stopped when Hardwick intervened, admitting that she steals alcohol so she can sell it to bars in Seattle.

Another common call police receive is for domestic disturbances between family members or roommates. Officer Josh Hwang said that while arguing is normal, “some people feel threatened,” so they call police. In other cases, neighbors will hear an argument and call because they are worried about the safety of the parties involved, he added.

And sometimes, police are called in to mediate “because somebody wants to get rid of somebody. Better to call earlier before it becomes a physical assault,” Hwang said.

During his night shift, Hwang often drives through Highway 99 parking lots checking license plates for stolen vehicles, where they are dumped by car thieves. A dead giveaway for a stolen car? One with no front plate that is backed into a parking spot, he said.

Hwang estimated that 90 percent of police call volume is related to substance abuse or mental health problems. “Theft, assault, robbery, burglary — all stem from some sort of narcotics abuse,” he said.

Much of the drug problem is connected to the the opioid epidemic that has swept through the United States in recent years. The Edmonds City Council as part of its 2018 budget approved  $250,000 to address the opioid crisis, although a plan for using that money has not yet been developed. Last year, the council also funded a part-time social worker — a position shared between the Edmonds and Lynnwood police departments — to provide outreach services for people in need, including those who are homeless or who have addiction problems. And the council approved as part of its 2018 budget an additional $250,000 to address homelessness issues, recently hiring a consultant to determine the scope of the problem in Edmonds.

Police social worker Ashley Dawson speaking to the Edmonds City Council in April.

Now on the job for five months, police social worker Ashley Dawson highlighted the issues facing those who are drug addicted and homeless during a presentation to the city council in April. Noting that Edmonds has just a few people who are truly homeless and living on the streets, she cited as a success story her work with a homeless man who had been living for some time in a tent along Highway 99 in Edmonds.

Through the efforts of Dawson and her police counterpart, the man is now in an inpatient detox treatment program outside of Yakima. “He has completed his treatment and actually has voluntarily decided to stay a little bit longer,” Dawson told the council. The man is thinking about staying in the Yakima area “because he knows that coming back here is where a lot of his negative influences are,” she said.

This man was living in a tent along Highway 99 in Edmonds but has since completed a treatment program in Eastern Washington.

A local church also provided support along the way, she said, providing him with a hotel room the night before his detox treatment and also purchasing a week’s worth of warm, dry clothing.

The goal of working with those who are homeless and drug-addicted is to “literally meet people where they are” and often, Dawson added, it takes time to build trust. “This work we are doing is not measured by numbers very often,” she said. “It takes a long time for us to have a full-on success story.”

— By Teresa Wippel

  1. Great work on this series, Teresa! Much territory covered in bite-sized chunks, and a very informative presentation.

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