Islanders strongly disapprove of the ‘road diet’ for ICW

Eva Zemplenyi and Deborah Ehlers
Island Forum

There is continuing concern about the lane reduction proposed for our main north/south arterial. The “road diet” would change the Island Crest Way (ICW) configuration to one northbound and one southbound lane, with a center left-turn lane. This is the second time that ICW narrowing has been proposed, and the second time it has received overwhelming disapproval from Islanders.

After the first public disapproval, I was selected as a member of the Citizen Panel convened to reexamine the lane reduction decision. Unfortunately, the panel was initially biased for narrowing ICW. At least four panel members had previously lobbied the Council for the road diet. A panel majority favored the road diet.

While it does slow down traffic, the road diet does not solve the problem which the panel was initially asked to tackle — the safety of the Merrimount intersection, which the city claims is “the worst accident location on the island.” The city’s 2006 Transportation Improvement Plan included a traffic light. However, the City Council rejected that and created the current Merrimount configuration. The lane reduction would not make the intersection any safer. Furthermore, S.E. 44th would remain closed to eastbound traffic, as it is now. Right turns onto ICW from S.E. 44th would remain extremely dangerous because of limited sight distance. Emergency response on ICW could be negatively affected with only one lane available in each direction and the middle lane interrupted by pedestrian islands. Traffic would come to a standstill with accidents. Bicyclists still could not have dedicated, marked bicycle lanes because the remaining space does not meet minimum width requirements for bicyclists.

The road diet is less expensive than a traffic light at Merrimount, but the major safety problem would remain unresolved. A pad-controlled signal, adjusting signal timing to minimize delays, would improve safety at the intersection, allow S.E. 44th to reopen in both directions, relieve the current diversion onto 86th Avenue, and make right turns from S.E. 44th safer. A signal at Merrimount would also allow a break in traffic for those turning left from 86th Avenue onto ICW, as opposed to a dense continuous stream condensed into one lane with the three-lane configuration.

Iowa and Minnesota Transportation Department studies of road diets concluded that such conversions should be considered only if the average daily traffic is less than 17,500 vehicles per day due to operational impacts and increased traffic diversion. ICW now has a daily volume of over 19,000 cars, without taking current downtown development into account.

If the city proceeds with the road diet, Merrimount will not be safer, and further analysis of the intersection will be required with additional expense for MI residents — thus negating any “savings” to be had from forgoing installation of a traffic light. If current finances do not permit the installation of a traffic light, in addition to the three now planned for much safer intersections, then leave the Merrimount intersection as it is until funding is available.

It now appears that in the next several weeks, the Council will approve the road diet. At the only public outreach, Islanders again disapproved the road diet, with 26 of 39 people who left written comments preferring a traffic light or leaving the situation as is, while the rest had a variety of other opinions (Reporter, March 11). If, as reported, Mayor Pearman believes that the overwhelming public disapproval does not reflect majority opinion, then let the Council put the issue on the ballot for Islanders to decide.

Eva Zemplenyi and Deborah Ehlers are Island residents and served on the ICW-Merrimount committee.

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