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Highway 500 reconfiguration passes 6-month crash test

Preliminary numbers indicate nearly a 90-percent drop in vehicle crashes after the Washington State Department of Transportation removed two traffic signals on state Highway 500.

The data support WSDOT’s decision to remove signals at Falk Road/42nd Avenue and Stapleton Road/54th Avenue and exceed the 70 percent expected reduction in crashes that state officials used prior to the traffic changes.

There were 396 reported crashes at or near the two locations during a five-year period that ended Aug. 31. That’s an average of about 40 crashes in six months or slightly more than one crash every five days.

During the first six months after the traffic signals were removed, through May, there were only four reported crashes at the same locations.

Mike Southwick, WSDOT traffic systems and operations manager in Southwest Washington, said transportation officials typically analyze three years of crash data covering different weather conditions and seasonal variations before reaching definite conclusions.

“Even though it is only six months, I would say we are happy with the way we are going,” Southwick said.

Vehicle counts, however, show increased traffic on Andresen Road, St. Johns Road and Fourth Plain Boulevard, an indication that drivers are diverting to those streets because of Highway 500 changes.

Removing the traffic signals also may mean that full interchanges will never be built at the two Highway 500 intersections because they likely will not have the accident frequency and traffic congestion to justify expensive improvements.

60,000 vehicles a day

In November, a contractor working for WSDOT removed traffic signals, making the two intersections “right in-right out” only. Drivers could no longer turn left onto Highway 500 or cross the thoroughfare used by nearly 60,000 vehicles a day. The project’s cost was about $860,000, including signal removal, restriping and other work.

Prior to removing the traffic signals, 76 percent of the crashes at or near the two intersections were rear-end crashes.

Today, drivers can travel nearly 6 miles on Highway 500, from Interstate 5 to Fourth Plain Boulevard/state Highway 503, without hitting a traffic signal. WSDOT has seen an increase in vehicle speeds, as well as increase in traffic volumes as more drivers use Highway 500 now its traffic-jamming signals have been removed.

But other drivers, who can no longer turn left onto Highway 500 at the two intersections, must divert to Vancouver and Clark County roads to reach their destinations.

Dale Robbins, a senior transportation planner with the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, said traffic counts were taken in the fall, before the intersections were changed, and afterward in the spring.

• St. Johns Road recorded a 9 percent increase in traffic south of Highway 500 and an 18 percent increase in traffic north of the highway.

• Fourth Plain Boulevard experienced a 7 to 8 percent increase in traffic west of Stapleton Road and an 18 percent increase in traffic near Andresen Road

• Andresen Road saw a 10 percent increase in traffic south of Highway 500 and an 18 percent increase in traffic north of the highway.

Robbins said he believes increased traffic on Andresen Road south of Highway 500 is largely due to diversion from the November changes. Traffic increases on Andresen Road north of the highway may be partially due to a large number of apartments built near 66th Avenue, he said.

“We are not seeing any failures,” Robbins said, referring to roads where traffic volume exceeds capacity or intersections where driver delay surpasses adopted standards.

WSDOT will do “turning movement” counts this fall at Andresen Road intersections to gather additional information on where drivers are going, not just how many vehicles are on the road. The agency is waiting until school resumes and summer vacations end to gather more data.

Ryan Lopossa, Vancouver streets and transportation manager, said he supports WSDOT taking more detailed traffic counts.

“It’s intuitive to a lot of folks there is more traffic on Andresen,” he said. “It’s really a matter of what, if anything, we can do on Andresen to keep those cars moving.”

Ped-bike crossing

WSDOT has $6 million budgeted to build a pedestrian-cyclist bridge or tunnel at Highway 500 and Stapleton Road/54th Avenue, similar to the existing crossing at Falk Road/42nd Avenue. Design is scheduled for 2021-23, with construction in 2023-25.

“Unfortunately, it is pushed out,” Southwick said. “But we are still committed to making it happen.”

WSDOT officials believe there will be sufficient money in that $6 million to pay for needed improvements on city streets, such as lengthening turn lanes on Andresen Road or Fourth Plain Boulevard.

Lopossa said he agrees with WSDOT gathering more data before discussing mitigation projects.

“Let’s make sure we have a real good handle on what the numbers are telling us,” he said

Last year, C-Tran agreed to provide free shuttles for pedestrians who felt stranded by not being able to cross Highway 500 at Stapleton Road/54th Avenue.

Scott Patterson, C-Tran’s chief external affairs officer, said the transit agency has provided 41 shuttles since the crosswalk was removed eight months ago.

“The highest ridership months were February and March, with 13 and 15 trips, respectively,” he wrote in an email. “Some months had just a few and other months, like this past June and July, had zero trips.”

Under terms of an agreement, WSDOT reimburses C-Tran $40 per trip, he wrote.

Neighborhood reaction

WSDOT recently requested feedback from neighborhood associations north of Highway 500, which may be experiencing more traffic on residential streets. South of Highway 500, drivers are likely diverting onto Fourth Plain Boulevard.

Cherryl Burkey, chairwoman of the Truman Neighborhood Association, said her association’s biggest complaint is that Highway 500 onramps aren’t long enough. She specifically referenced Falk Road/42nd Avenue to Highway 500 westbound and Stapleton Road/54th Avenue to Highway 500 eastbound.

“It’s terrible,” she said. “Even I don’t use it, and I have no fear.”

WSDOT has a different perspective. Tamara Greenwell, a WSDOT spokeswoman, said the onramps, which her agency calls acceleration lanes, are 900 to 1,200 feet long, depending on the location, with an additional 300-foot taper at the end.

“These are standard-length merge lanes that provide enough distance for a vehicle to accelerate from 15 mph to 55 mph,” Greenwell wrote in an email. “There are no plans to lengthen the onramps, since the acceleration lane lengths meet current design guidelines.”

Burkey said additional traffic on St. Johns Road and other streets have discouraged residents from shopping on Fourth Plain Boulevard.

“I feel bad for the people on Fourth Plain,” she said. “I don’t shop there anymore. I have taken most of my business up to Hazel Dell.”

Because of the big drop in traffic crashes on Highway 500, Burkey said, she believes the benefit from removing the two traffic signals is worth any negative side effects.

“The neighbors think it’s great the accidents have lessened so much,” she said. “It did what it was supposed to do. But on the other hand, this is our home. … We look at it as our quality of life has been greatly affected.”

No interchanges?

The decision to remove the traffic signals means full interchanges might never be built at those two locations. The state had been slowly whittling away at eliminating Highway 500 intersections, completing interchanges at Thurston Way in 2002 and at St. Johns Road in 2012.

Without significant traffic crashes and congestion, those two locations won’t fare well in what often is a competitive process to channel limited transportation dollars to the state’s and region’s biggest trouble spots.

Southwick said whether interchanges will be built is a discussion WSDOT needs to have with its partners in the community. He also said the two interchanges remain part of the Regional Transportation Plan.

Not exactly. The plan, a long-range document that looks at transportation needs in 2040, was updated by the Regional Transportation Council’s board of directors in March. It doesn’t explicitly call for interchanges but instead vaguely refers to “implement improvements, if needed, to address additional needs.”

Lopossa said the opportunity to build interchanges as the two locations may be gone.

“It’s certainly going to be a challenge to achieve any kind of metrics you need to support that kind of interchange project,” he said.


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