Key traffic lights may be delayed

Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Southeast 44th Street and Island Crest Way at the top of Merrimount Drive is one of the most dangerous intersections on the Island, according to police department records. The majority of accidents are rear-end collisions and T-bone incidents. -
Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Southeast 44th Street and Island Crest Way at the top of Merrimount Drive is one of the most dangerous intersections on the Island, according to police department records. The majority of accidents are rear-end collisions and T-bone incidents.
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Members of the City Council may ax plans to put up a traffic light at Island Crest Way and Merrimount Drive, depending on the advice they receive from traffic experts currently reviewing the intersection.

The Council is also planning to delay the installation of new signals in the Town Center until ongoing developments are finished. Final decisions on both areas are expected at the Council’s next meeting on June 18.

Instead of putting up a signal at Merrimount, the Council may opt to make some changes on Island Crest Way to make the intersection less dangerous: Reduce the speed limit to 30 mph, stripe turn lanes for southbound traffic heading onto S.E. 44th Street, and prohibit left turns from 44th and Merrimount. Reducing the number of through lanes for turn lanes, however, was not supported by the public when presented during the S.E. 40th improvement planning process.

Last year, during the public hearing portions of the road improvement planning process, nearly 150 Island residents gave their input about the intersection at Island Crest Way and Merrimount. About one-third of those comments asked for a traffic light and another third wanted controlled speeds in both directions of Island Crest Way. Seven residents asked that a signal not be installed but do something to improve the situation. The Council ultimately decided to slate the construction of a traffic signal in the 2009-2010 biennium budget.

This spring, numerous citizens expressed their wishes for a signal at the troublesome intersection again. The city received 34 comments from concerned residents wanting the signal right away, city engineer Patrick Yamashita said. At the request of the Council, however, city staffers have asked traffic consultants to evaluate other options that don’t include a traffic light.

“I’m intrigued by it,” Deputy Mayor Jim Pearman said of the new option being considered for the intersection at Merrimount and Island Crest Way. “It could be that a no-light solution could improve the situation better than a light.”

Pearman also said he wouldn’t be convinced to nix the traffic signal idea until the data and recommendations were presented before the Council.

“We want the best solution possible,” he said. “It also has to be the safest and most efficient answer possible. And it could be not having the light is a really great solution if it all pans out. We’ll just have to wait and see if it does.”

A good solution is needed for the intersection, because it is in one of the most congested locations on the Island and has a history of auto accidents. It is rated in city standards as “failing.” According to MIPD accident reports obtained by city transportation planner Nancy Fairchild, there have been 31 auto accidents in the intersection since 2002. While the total number of traffic accidents on the Island has decreased over the past five years, from 238 in 2002 to 198 crashes in 2006, the number of accidents at Merrimount has grown. From 2002 to 2004, there were 11 crashes. From 2005 to this April, the number of accidents nearly doubled to 20.

The majority of the accidents in the Island Crest-Merrimount intersection are rear-end and T-bone collisions. From January 2002 until this April, there were 16 collisions from vehicles crossing Island Crest Way from Merrimount or S.E. 44th Street or from taking left turns into unseen, oncoming traffic. There were also nine rear-end collisions in that same time period. Other accidents involved drivers losing control of their vehicles due to adverse road conditions or inattentive driving.

Two crashes occurred from inattentive drivers causing additional accidents while emergency crews and police dealt with nearby collisions that occurred moments earlier, according to the accident reports. One driver even caused two consecutive accidents in a matter of minutes. On March 25, 2003, a 48-year-old man rear-ended a 65-year-old woman waiting to turn left onto Island Crest from on Merrimount. While the woman crossed Island Crest Way to make way for the traffic accumulating behind them, the man was T-boned by another vehicle while trying to cross immediately afterward.

One of the pressures on the Council’s decision is the escalating costs of construction. Last year, city staff estimated a traffic light at the intersection would cost $550,000. That number has gone up $200,000 from cost estimations done this year. A graphic model of the non-signal option will be presented before the Council on June 18.

In addition to possibly canceling the light at Merrimount, the Island won’t get any new traffic lights in Town Center in the next two years, unless Council members change their minds before their next meeting.

Jason King, an Islander who wants the signal at 77th and 27th asked the Council to hold true to its previous decision to put in a signal this year and asked them to refrain from lowering the Town Center’s level of service standards.

“It’s very critical we look at these things to plan for the future of the Town Center,” King said.

While it may postpone adding new lights this time around, the Council did direct city staff to construct a sidewalk this year on 72nd Avenue S.E. between S.E. 24 and 30th Street. This action requires city planners to possibly delay other projects on the roads plan or hire a contracted planner to assist in the increased work load, or both. The planners and city administrators plan to present a final draft of the Transportation Improvement Plan at the June 18 Council meeting.

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