ATV group seeks 35-mph zones to increase access
By Marcy Stamper
In terms of sheer numbers, there appears to be broad support for a proposal by a local all-terrain vehicle (ATV) group to lower speed limits on four Methow Valley roads.
Okanogan County received petitions with about 150 signatures supporting the change, and nine of the 12 people who testified at the county commissioners’ June 30 hearing also favored the reduction.
By contrast, almost two-thirds of those who sent letters to the county about the speed-limit change were against it, and another 34 signed a petition in opposition.
Another petition submitted to the county was signed by 22 business owners in Winthrop who favor allowing ATVs to use streets in town. While opening town streets to ATVs is not currently under consideration – nor is it the jurisdiction of the county commissioners – that support could ultimately come into play.
The North Central ATV Club, which petitioned the county to lower the speed limits, says it wants to create connections between county and U.S. Forest Service roads already open to ATVs so people can ride into town for a meal or shopping.
The Twisp and Winthrop town councils tabled requests to allow ATVs on town streets in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and neither town has been asked to revisit the issue, according to spokespersons for the towns.
Okanogan County received one more petition with 114 signatures that supports opening Methow Valley roads to ATVs in general but does not mention the four roads that are the subject of the current request.
The proposed speed-limit reductions are on East Chewuch and Bear Creek roads near Winthrop, the Twisp-Winthrop Eastside Road near Twisp, and Upper Beaver Creek Road, a total of 5.1 miles.
While the speed-limit petitions submitted by the ATV club said the changes would be “for safety concerns for all and ATV use,” the majority of those who wrote to the county supporting the reduced speed limit emphasized safety, noting that the roads are winding, often used by pedestrians and cyclists, and pose a risk of collisions with deer. Others said the changes would promote all types of recreation and boost the local economy.
Opponents said reducing the speed limit would inconvenience everyone and unfairly privilege a single interest group. They also pointed to the Methow Valley’s emphasis on nonmotorized recreation and said that attracts tourists.
Traffic study results
At the commissioners’ hearing, County Engineer Josh Thomson presented the results of a weeklong traffic study on each of the four roads. Speeds clocked on the roads were between 41 and 45 miles per hour (mph) or slower for 85 percent of travelers. That was below the posted speed limit on three of the roads, but actually above the 40-mph limit on the Twisp-Winthrop East County Road. The sections proposed for the speed-limit reduction have advisory signs with lower speeds.
Thomson concluded that lowering the speed limit is not likely to decrease safety on Bear Creek and Upper Beaver Creek roads. On the Twisp-Winthrop Eastside Road, while conditions do not dictate a reduced speed limit, lowering it would not contribute to safety problems, he wrote. On East Chewuch Road, a 35-mph speed limit would be consistent with the curves and mixed use, although it would be 10 mph slower than the average travel speed in the traffic study, he wrote.
A lower speed limit is not always safer, since, if set “abnormally low,” some motorists will drive at the speed they think is appropriate or pass other vehicles in an unsafe manner, said Thomson.
The Consumer Federation of America also raised overall safety issues in a letter to the commissioners. “ATVs should not be driven on public roads because driving ATVs on public roads is more dangerous than operating them off-road, ATVs are not designed for roadway use, and ATV manufacturers have policy statements strongly urging consumers not to operate their vehicles on public roads,” wrote the group’s legislative director.
Lowering the speed limit to 35 mph would not automatically allow ATV riders to use the roads, since that would require a separate action by the commissioners. State law restricts wheeled ATVs to roads posted 35 mph or slower.
The commissioners also requested guidance from the county’s interim chief civil deputy, David Gecas, about the legality of a variable speed limit currently being tested in Ferry County. That approach creates a speed of 35 mph during daylight hours from April through the end of October when ATVs are present.
While state law permits setting different speed limits for trucks, it does not do so for wheeled ATVs, wrote Gecas in a memo to the commissioners. Even if legal and deemed safe based on an engineering study, “the corresponding traffic sign would remain a source of potential county liability for negligent signing,” particularly because it conveys a lot of unusual information through three supplemental signs and leaves some questions unanswered, wrote Gecas.
A spokesperson for the attorney general confirmed that they had received an informal inquiry from the commissioners about setting variable speeds. The attorney general advised the commissioners that they could address the issue if a formal request for an opinion is submitted.
The county commissioners have closed public input on the requested speed-limit changes. They will continue their deliberations on Tuesday (July 14) at 4 p.m. in their hearing room in Okanogan.