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Traffic lights coming to Town Center, Council considers center lane for ICW

The City Council moved toward approving two new traffic signals in the Town Center and revising the intersection of Island Crest Way and Merrimount Drive.

During the first meeting of its annual roads and transportation planning, the Council asked the city engineer and staff to come back with final cost estimates of adding two lights along S.E. 27th Street at 77th and 78th Avenues. The Council also asked for comparisons of extending the lane reduction as far south as S.E. 53rd Street from S.E. 42nd while adding protected pedestrian crossings, or maintain but improve the current scenario.

Final approval from the Council is expected to take place during its next meeting, June 2.

Prior to its public hearing, the Council removed from consideration the proposal to prevent all turns at Merrimount and 44th to and from Island Crest Way by placing a curb down the middle of the roadway. That decision pleased several in the crowd, including the school district transportation director Todd Kelsay.

“I was going to talk about [the curb] option. The smallest change in our routes ripples through our cost and ridership,” said Kelsay. “We identified 650 students who would have to get to their stop earlier or wait an extra eight or nine minutes to get home. With the [road diet, or lane reduction], I think we might see more use of the roadways by walkers and bicyclists, especially from the people we expect to walk to school because they live close enough.”

However, the Council wasn’t completely sold on the permanent lane reduction, which would comprise two through-lanes and one shared center turn lane. Councilmembers seemed to be on the verge of keeping the existing modifications, ready to spend a minimum amount to improve the aesthetics, but city engineer Patrick Yamashita and a hired consultant stated that Island Crest Way needed to be widened in the intersection to keep that configuration. Widening the road is very costly, however, and the consultant will return at the next meeting with the cost estimates of both the lane reduction and widening.

“Northbound, I still think you have to do widening,” said Joe Giacobazzi, a traffic consultant with KPG engineering. “It’s cheap to take care of southbound lanes, but for the northbound, it is going to require widening. That is where people are having grief. The only solution involves widening if we’re keeping four lanes.”

Yamashita recommended that the Council apply the lane reduction option to test it out prior to the city’s planned overlay of north Island Crest Way in 2012 and 2014. He said splitting the reduction in two would also provide the opportunity to fine tune it during the first overlay and apply the lessons learned during the second wave of changes.

“I do like the benefits with the three-lane alternative,” said Yamashita. “Looking ahead to the arterial overlays of Island Crest Way, we plan to do the north segment from 40th Street to 85th in 2012, and from 86th down to 53rd two years later. [The extended lane reduction] would dovetail into that second overlay.”

After hearing from the engineers, the Council briefly debated its options and favor shifted toward the lane reduction.

“The idea is to avoid the widening, which is the biggest part of the cost,” said Councilmember Dan Grausz. “My idea would be to not spend more than $100,000 to improve what’s out there today, but it doesn’t make logical sense to spend the same amount of money for the lane reduction to widen the road and keep the current configuration.”

After discussing the future of Island Crest and Merrimount, the Council discussed its plans for adding traffic signals at the two busiest intersections in the Town Center. The previous plan called for a light at S.E. 27th Street and 77th Avenue in 2009 and the another at 78th, two years later. However, the Council wants to complete the signals conjointly to facilitate traffic flow.

“Through the staff’s recommendation and my own personal experience, I think we absolutely need a traffic light,” said deputy mayor El Jahncke. “I think we waited a year or two too late.”

City officials plan to present a revised priority list at the next meeting, placing the S.E. 27th and 78th signal ahead of another project. Three nearby redevelopments in the Town Center and the new Starbucks surrounding the intersections will contribute about $90,000 toward the cost of the signals. The two lights are expected to cost a total of about $1.3 million.

The Council will also decide how to continue paving the East Mercer Way shoulder, which currently extends as far south as S.E. 53rd Street. Pedestrian projects planned for 2008 and 2009 include paths along 72nd Avenue S.E. and the Island Crest Way trail located between S.E. 71st and 78th Streets. The public hearing will continue on June 2. The city plans to begin construction of a concrete pathway along 72nd between S.E. 24th and 32nd Streets this year while it re-paves the street. However, the path will not be completed until 2009.

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