Study will look at ways to create a safer, denser Martin Way

It’s easy to forget Martin Way East was once a state highway. That it was built to move lots of cars quickly becomes apparent when you try crossing the five lanes on foot or keeping up with traffic whizzing by when on a bike.

“I only will drive my car on that. It’s not even an option for me to use it on a bike or walking,” said Brittany Yunker Carlson, who leads Olympia’s bike and pedestrian advisory committee. “Bike lanes are terrifying when there are drivers going by you at 45 mph.”

There’s not just cars — there’s a lot of cars. Martin Way is one of the busiest roads in Thurston County with up to 35,000 vehicles per day in parts. Last year there were dozens of crashes, including three fatalities. In one case a motorcyclist thought to be going 90 mph died after swerving to avoid a car.

Traffic bustles along Marvin Road at Martin Way East. Steve Bloom

In another, a woman was killed after she was hit by a pickup truck while riding a medical scooter on the road’s shoulder. Weeks later, two people were injured on the same block while trying to cross the street.

The sidewalk comes and goes, with long stretches without a crosswalk. Numerous turns into parking lots and driveways can be a hazard for bikes and pedestrians. Meanwhile, some nearby neighborhoods don’t connect to Martin Way, meaning even if you wanted to walk there, there might not be a direct route.

But the look and feel of Martin Way could change soon. The cities of Olympia and Lacey, along with Thurston County and Intercity Transit, will soon launch a study that could serve as a roadmap to creating a safer, denser Martin Way. It will look at transportation, safety and land use conditions along the corridor, survey residents and businesses, measure demand for development and recommend changes.

The study is expected to get started this spring and take two or three years. Its $523,000 price tag will be mostly paid for by a federal grant. The agreement outlining the study calls Martin Way “a prime candidate for increasing land use intensity and walking and biking activity.”

Long before Interstate 5 was built, Martin Way was part of the state’s primary north-south highway. It was named for Gov. Clarence D. Martin, who was on hand for the dedication in 1937 where he lauded highways as bringing communities closer together, according to Olympian archives.

A 1950 map of highways through Thurston County. Courtesy Washington State Archives

The road’s origin now poses a challenge to planners trying to make it an appealing destination for anyone not in a car

“If you were going from Portland to Seattle, everyone went that way,” said Veena Tabbutt, deputy director at Thurston Regional Planning Council, which will lead the study. “It’s a challenge to retrofit those areas.”

Starting in 2009, a TRPC task force looked at ways to transform the former state highway route in Thurston County including Martin Way. In 2013, the city of Olympia did its own study looking at whether the lack of infrastructure on Martin Way was a barrier to development.

More recently, Lacey’s 2016 comprehensive plan update identified Martin Way as a good candidate for infill as the city grows, said Rick Walk, director of Lacey’s community and economic development department. The plan called on the city and county to jointly update zoning in the area to encourage a mix of uses on larger parcels and a mix of uses within the corridor.

Which brings us to another challenge: geography. The 7.5-mile stretch of road to be studied — from Pacific Avenue Southeast to Marvin Road — travels through Olympia, Lacey, unincorporated Thurston County and back into Lacey. Development regulations for things like parking, density, setbacks and building design can vary depending on jurisdiction.

“No one agency can make a difference on their own,” said Scott Davis, traffic engineer and operations manager for Thurston County Public Works. The goal of the study, he said, is to establish “a common vision” for the corridor.

One agency that deals with nearly all of Martin Way is Intercity Transit, which passed a sales tax increase last year to fund service expansion. As of last weekend, buses on Route 62 along Martin Way run about every 15 minutes, seven days a week.

Next it hopes to bring express service to the corridor, getting riders to and from Lacey and west Olympia with just 10 stops in between and no bus transfer required. IT has applied for a $4.5 million state grant to fund a pilot program starting as early as the fall.

“A delayed bus on Martin Way means there might be delays on other routes,” said IT spokeswoman Rena Shawver. “We need Martin Way to work so our whole system works.”

At least some changes to Martin Way will come sooner: In April, IT and the city of Olympia will add a traffic signal, crosswalks and sidewalk at Pattison Street near IT headquarters.

Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.