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Traffic signal no longer considered for Merrimount-ICW intersection

Additional changes to the intersection of Island Crest Way and Merrimount Drive may be ahead, but the City Council will not be considering the installation of a traffic light.

During a study session prior to its regular meeting last Monday, the Council directed city and consulting engineers to come up with three alternative designs that preserve existing thoroughfare but also improve safety. The desired alternatives that the Councilmembers would like to see include returning the four-lane intersection with a curb blocking cross traffic and turns, “dressing up” the current scenario or expanding it a bit more north and south. Options that included a traffic light were not sought by the Council.

The Council will begin deliberating the future of the intersection during its annual transportation planning sessions from May 19 to June 2. Public hearings will take place during regular scheduled meetings on May 19 and June 2.

“The traffic counts pretty much were what we anticipated,” said Joe Giacobazzi, an engineer with the consulting firm that monitored the intersection for the past six months. “We saw 19,000 a day on Island Crest, about 1,000 on 44th and 3,000 on Merrimount. We did not see a mass diversion onto 86th.”

Giacobazzi works for KPG, the engineering firm hired by the city to install and monitor the existing improvements in the intersection as a temporary test last summer. Data collected by KPG and the city showed a diversion of about 60 cars per peak-hour — cars that had previously made left turns onto Merrimount now use 86th, which intersects with Island Crest further south.

“That is about one car every six minutes in addition to the regular traffic on 86th,” Giacobazzi said.

The results of the monitoring also showed that the average speed decreased from 42 to 40 mph on Island Crest Way, and speeds were nearly cut in half through the intersection. Two accidents occurred in the last six months. Giacobazzi said they were both rear-end collisions. During the review of the intersection, public comments submitted to the city stated residents and drivers also notified the city of numerous close calls, or near accidents, they had witnessed in the intersection. Other comments generally stated that the lack of pedestrian crossings and high speeds were the community’s largest concerns, Giacobazzi said. The intersection of Island Crest and Merrimount/S.E. 44th Street has been the least safe on the Island in recent years. Accidents have not only increased in number, but severity as well, and several members of the community asked for a traffic signal.

Although the city has the funds in its transportation budget to install a traffic light, Councilmembers decided to seek other alternatives because of the $750,000-and-rising-cost estimate and projected back-ups.

One such design discussed on Monday would improve what is out there today by widening the lanes and improving the aesthetics of the existing improvements. Giacobazzi said his consulting firm estimates that option would cost about $500,000, mainly because of the cost to widen Island Crest Way. Another option would extend the lane reduction closer to S.E. 40th Street, maintaining a two-lane roadway from the South end through the intersection. That would cost around $250,000. Finally, the Council requested a design alternative that would simply install a curb through the middle of the intersection to prevent all turns and crossings and return the four-lane roadway. That would only cost $50,000.

Councilmember Bruce Bassett suggested the city extend the “road diet” to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety. According to Giacobazzi, Bassett’s suggestion with a center turn lane would make the intersection safer for cars and pedestrians if a pedestrian island was also installed.

“Across the nation, we have seen that after a road diet is installed, accidents plummet,” said Giacobazzi. “The reason for that is when there is a four-lane facility, a car making a left causes weaving. This is a tight roadway and even right turns require more room to exit the road. Having fewer wider lanes would make it safer.”

Reducing the road to two lanes further north near S.E. 42nd, where there is a dangerous crosswalk, would also provide an opportunity to add a pedestrian island for a safer crossing. Island resident Steve Ybarra sued the city last fall after he was hit by a car while in the crosswalk. A jury found the city partially responsible for the accident. On Monday, resident Richard Tate asked the Council to improve that same crosswalk. Tate said he had been in the crosswalk during one rear-end collision and witnessed a truck crash while trying to stop another time he was crossing. Ultimately, he suggested a pedestrian bridge would be the best solution.

“I use [the crosswalk] frequently and have had a couple of incidents there that were inherently dangerous,” said Tate. “At that location, people can smell the freeway as they are coming down the hill, and they are not going to stop. That crosswalk is an accident waiting to happen.”

Reducing the number of lanes, however, did raise some concern about congestion. Councilmember Mike Cero asked why a two-lane roadway with a center turn lane would not cause back-ups similar to the traffic further south near Island Park Elementary.

“The congestion down at Island Park is from cars entering or exiting,” said Giacobazzi. “It doesn’t matter if you have three or five lanes; you are still going to have congestion with that school situation.”

Councilmember Dan Grausz said he liked the simplest, cost-effective change. Preventing turns with a curb down the middle but preserving the four lanes was his preferred alternative.

“The community will eventually realize it’s not a big deal to use other intersections and different routes,” he said.

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