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Washington: A state divided over studded tire use

Richard Roesler
The (Spokane) Spokesman Review

OLYMPIA – Sen. Shirley Winsley is no stranger to severe winter driving. The Pierce County, Wash., Republican grew up in Minnesota, within 20 miles of two cities that routinely turn up in nightly weather reports as the coldest places in America.

"If you want to talk to me about snow and ice and cold weather, I can talk to you," she told a Senate committee Wednesday. "I'm not the city slicker that some of you might think I am, telling Eastern Washington how to live its life."
Winsley, along with the state Department of Transportation, wants to ban studded tires. The tires destroy the roads, they say.

"This has become a war between Eastern Washington lawmakers and Western Washington lawmakers, and I think that's pretty silly," said Winsley.

Only 10 percent of those who live on the state's West Side use studded tires, she said. East of the Cascades, that number rises to 32 percent.

"They like them, they can't live without them," she said. "But those of us in Western Washington, we deal with a lot of water over here."

And when it rains, the ruts from studded tires turn into little canals, causing cars to hydroplane and trucks to hurl up waves of spray.

The $15 surcharge was proposed by Sen. Jim Horn, a Republican from the Seattle suburb of Mercer Island. He says it's an effort at a compromise.

"It seems like the argument rages on for banning, so I suggested a fee," he said. "These studs are like little hammers chipping away at the pavement."

Both bills drew fire this week from tire dealers, snowmobilers and senior citizens.

"Our seniors have been very comfortable with studded tires," said Bruce Reeves, with the Senior Citizens Lobby. "They depend on them, and think they work."

Seniors don't want to use tire chains because they're hard to put on, he said. And they're not going to like the prospect of a $60 surcharge for four tires, Reeves said.

Howard Briggs, a Cle Elum, Wash., man who's a member of the state snowmobile association, said Puget Sound lawmakers don't realize what it's like to live through real winters.

"We've got two different states, basically, when it comes to weather and road conditions," he told lawmakers. "We can have ice and snow patches on roadways for months. You guys over here have snow for a week and it's a big deal."

The Department of Transportation estimates that studded tires cause $10 million worth of damage to state highways each year. The worst parts are in Spokane and along Western Washington's Interstate 5 corridor. In fact, Spokane features prominently in a four-page anti-studded-tire brochure published by DOT.

Interestingly, a recent survey of Spokane Valley residents by Sen. Bob McCaslin suggests that a large majority support either banning, taxing, or requiring a yearly permit for studded tires. McCaslin, using his lawmaker's mailing privileges, sent a survey to 21,000 homes. Of the 1,343 that came back, here's how they felt:

  • 40 percent: ban studded tires.
  • 28 percent: allow them, but charge a fee.
  • 9 percent: allow them, but require a permit.
  • 23 percent: leave things as they are now.

Winsley on Wednesday floated the idea of what she called a common-sense alternative to outlawing the tires: just ban them in Western Washington. If people have special circumstances, like commuting over a pass, she said, they could get a permit.

"And the residents of Eastern Washington can continue to use their studs. Just stay over there," she said.
If they visit Western Washington, they, too, could get some sort of permit, she said.

As for weekend skiers and snowmobilers in Puget Sound, she said, "they probably could use chains like we used to do in Minnesota and do very well."