WOODLAND — Monica Rehm is one of many residents considering what to do about an oft-congested Interstate 5 Exit 21 interchange. But after spending 45 minutes in traffic heading home from the post office around Christmastime last year, despite living just two miles away, she certainly knows one thing.
“Something has to be done here,” Rehm said.
Officials in Woodland and neighboring governments have narrowed options for the interchange to two designs, both mostly affecting state Highway 503 west and east of the freeway. One would involve three roundabouts. The other is similar to the current layout with a new arrangement of traffic signals.
“We looked at different scenarios and different sizes, but it’s really alternatives of the same two basic concepts,” Woodland Community Development Director Travis Goddard said.
As Woodland continues to grow, the interchange sees an average of about 10,000 cars a day, Goddard said. During rush hour, cars often back up into the slow lane of Interstate 5.
“It’s dangerous,” Rehm said.
About 21 percent of traffic in Woodland comes from Clark County and another 30 percent flows from Lewis River Road to the east, Goddard said. Over the past few months, officials from Woodland, Clark County, the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Council of Governments, Cowlitz County and the state Department of Transportation whittled down a variety of options presented by Kittelson & Associates, the Portland-based engineering firm hired by the city to study the interchange.
“This is a regional problem that we’re trying to solve,” Goddard said. “It’s entirely within the city’s jurisdiction, but it’s not entirely created by the city.”
In the concept, one large roundabout appears at the intersection where the end of the northbound offramp and the highway meet. Two other ones would be located on the west side of the freeway: one at Lakeshore Drive and the other at Pacific Avenue.
The state’s preference is to install roundabouts, Goddard said. Generally, they’re considered to be better at handling large traffic flows and safer due to the slower speeds people drive while using them.
But due to its proximity to a major economic thoroughfare, a lot of commercial trucks pass through the interchange, raising questions as to the feasibility of roundabouts.
“I know there’s some concern of — well, maybe a lot of concern — about roundabouts and the industrial zone,” Woodland City Councilor Benjamin Fredricks said at a Dec. 16 city council meeting.
Caleb Cox, an engineering associate with Kittelson & Associates, told the city council at the meeting that the roundabout plans could incorporate large trucks. He mentioned, for instance, the use of truck aprons, which are raised concrete sections that large vehicles can drive over when they need extra space.
“We know that large trucks are coming through this area pretty frequently, so that’s definitely a consideration we have as we’re working through these roundabouts and something we’ll be exploring in more depth as we move forward,” Cox said.
Moments later at the same meeting, City Councilor Carol Rounds raised perhaps the primary misgiving about roundabouts.
“Does it teach people how to drive the roundabouts?” she jokingly asked Cox about the plans. ” ‘Cause they sure don’t know how to drive them.”
Cox acknowledged that, at least temporarily, roundabouts can cause some headaches.
“There can definitely be a break-in period when roundabouts are new to communities,” Cox said.
The roundabouts are included as one concept, as opposed to being mixed in with a traffic signals option, because they typically work better in a series, Cox said. “We’re not restricting any movements by doing it this way.”
Traffic signals option
Cox described the traffic signals concept as “similar, but improved” compared with the current layout, which includes signals at three different intersections that are under review. One such intersection is west of I-5 at Pacific Avenue and state Highway 503. The other two are on the highway east of the freeway: one at the end of the northbound offramp and the other at East CC Street.
Under the second concept, signals at CC Street would move a few hundred feet east to Millard Street, and signals would also be added at the intersection of Goerig Street and Lakeshore Drive to the east of the interstate. The signals at the offramp and Pacific Avenue would remain in place and be refurbished.
In addition to taking away a signal, CC Street would be disconnected from the highway, and the city would work to create a right turn just south of it. The plan would strive to avoid the current layout of two outlets to the highway — CC Street and the offramp — within steps of each other.
“When you have that, it just creates some inefficiencies that we’re trying to fix,” Cox said.
Paths for bicyclists and pedestrians, about 10 feet wide, would also be in the works.
Kittelson & Associates is still analyzing how each of the concepts will account for future population growth. Until that process is complete, Goddard is holding off from offering an opinion on which concept he prefers.
“I’m still waiting to see what the technical experts say,” Goddard said. “We just need to show which one will function best in the long term.”
Goddard did, however, say that any plan should be implemented as a whole, rather than piece by piece, and warned that completing only some of the project might put funding at risk.
“My preference as the city planner is to try to fix all of the problems at once,” Goddard said. “You never know what’s going to happen with funding.”
While a firm timeline has not been set, a city council decision on a final concept may come in late March or early April. The project will be funded through the state and a number of grants — rather than loans or tax increases — and should be “shovel-ready” by the end of the year, Woodland Mayor Will Finn said.
Finn said that the roundabouts will last longer than intersections. While both concepts would cost about the same to construct, the signals would require higher maintenance expenditures.
Finn said he’s heard from various businesses and residents who strongly support one concept over the other. Pushback is expected regardless of which option is chosen.
“It’s really different to answer the question of which one is better,” Finn said. “There’s a mixed bag there.”