Panther Lake’s Benson Highway: Fatality, close calls worry residents, police

Traffic buzzes by Panther Lake resident John Gehlman as he walks along the sidewalk next to the heavily traveled Benson Highway near Southeast 224th Street.

Panther Lake resident John Gehlman stands along the Benson Highway June 18 during rush-hour traffic as he talks about the dangerous jaywalking he has seen along the busy roadway.

Panther Lake resident John Gehlman stands along the Benson Highway June 18 during rush-hour traffic as he talks about the dangerous jaywalking he has seen along the busy roadway.

Traffic buzzes by Panther Lake resident John Gehlman as he walks along the sidewalk next to the heavily traveled Benson Highway near Southeast 224th Street.

Gehlman lives just a block from the highway. It didn’t surprise him that two pedestrians were struck by cars last fall in the 22000 block and 22400 block of the highway, also known as State Route 515 and 108th Avenue Southeast.

Many drivers use the road to travel north or south across the East Hill. Many pedestrians cross the road to get to bus stops.

“Every morning I see someone walk across the street,” said Gehlman, who uses the highway to commute to work. “Sometimes they even put up their hands to try to get you to stop. It’s everyone from young kids to ladies in their 60s or 70s.”

A 58-year-old Seattle man was struck and killed Dec. 16 as he attempted to cross the five-lane road. He was not in a crosswalk. A 22-year-old woman was injured by a car Oct. 27 when she tried to cross the highway without using a crosswalk to catch a bus.

That section of the Benson Highway, along with the rest of Panther Lake, becomes part of the city of Kent on July 1. Voters approved annexation to the city in November with many in favor because of anticipated improved police services.

Kent Police plan to emphasize traffic patrols along the Benson Highway between Southeast 236th Street to Southeast 192nd Street as the city takes on another 24,000 residents.

“They’ll know Kent’s there,” said Kent Police Sgt. Robert Constant, traffic-unit supervisor. “We’ll be up in that area to get a feel for it and figure out the traffic problems.”

Constant said the police are aware of the pedestrian-vehicle accidents along the Benson. They also know many drivers speed along the road. The posted speed limit is 45 mph.

“There are not properly marked crosswalks and pedestrians are getting hit,” Constant said. “We need to figure out the issues and come up with a plan. Initially, we will evaluate the area and figure out where to put our resources.”

Residents who live in apartment complexes on each side of the Benson near Southeast 224th Street have two crosswalk options if they want to get to or from a bus stop. Neither crosswalk is right next to the apartments.

Pedestrians can take an underpass just north of Southeast 224th Street or go to the traffic light at the intersection of Southeast 222nd Place. There is no crosswalk at Southeast 224th Street or any other intersection south of 224th until Southeast 240th Street.

Gehlman took a walk with a reporter and photographer through the pedestrian underpass that he said his daughter describes as “creepy.” The underpass is dark, dirty and covered with graffiti. Two men hung out at one end of the underpass and then quickly left as Gehlman and his guests walked the path.

Gehlman said he hopes public safety improves in Panther Lake under the Kent Police compared to the King County Sheriff’s Office that currently serves the unincorporated area.

“We have a hard time getting King County to come around when there are problems so hopefully it will help,” said Gehlman, who has lived 32 years in Panther Lake. “We called the sheriff for speeding on our road and they would not come out to patrol it. It makes it maddening.”

The Kent Police have heard the complaints. The agency plans to provide better police services.

“People have called (the sheriff’s office) and are not getting the response they expected,” Constant said. “With Kent, we will respond.”

That includes a focus along the Benson Highway.

“There will be a lot of officers up there to look at the issues and they will have suggestions to do this or do that to reduce the traffic accidents,” Constant said.

Police also will work with city traffic engineers to determine whether additional crosswalks or other changes might be needed to make the Benson a safer road.

“Everybody travels too fast on the Benson,” Gehlman said.

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