Proposals for ICW/Merrimount don't solve problems
March 30, 2009 · Updated 10:43 AM
Our city, the mayor, Council and transportation officials are due credit for identifying the dangers posed by the intersection of Island Crest Way and Merrimount/44th. They are due credit for engaging transportation experts, initiating extended public dialogue and experimenting with solutions.
I live one block from the intersection of issue and drive it regularly. My wife and I bicycle, walk and hike, and recognize the dangers to pedestrians at this intersection.
For 20 plus years, we lived on the South end, delivering our four children to Youth Theatre, the Boys & Girls Club, Children's Choir, Island Sound and the high school, and appreciated the through-put of our Island's only real arterial, always running just a little late. As an attorney working (too long and hard) downtown, I appreciated Island Crest Way as a direct way home, getting me there for dinner, or delivery of our kids to their next activity. When I had extra time, I went home on West Mercer — enjoyable drive, decompressing. I appreciated the choices. Time had value.
I recall when Island Crest Way did not reach the South end. East and West Mercer Ways were our routes to the North end. They had sharper curves, were narrower then and — again, credit to the city — over the years, continuous improvements were made to them, widening the curves, improving sight distances and adding shoulders. We condemned or bought up a few properties to make it so.
My grandparents came onto the Island in the 1920s to a summer lake cabin. My parents followed. They supported investment in schools and our roads, pushing Island Crest south and improving the Mercers. They paid the taxes to do so and knew it improved our Island.
I agree that this intersection is dangerous. I have seen two of the T-bone accidents that brought the matter to the Council's attention. I acknowledge that the current proposals mitigate the driving risk. I do not believe they solve the problems of this intersection and they do so at the waste of an asset, our arterial, a four-lane Island Crest Way, paid for and in place.
Analysis should start with the identification of the real problem, not with notions of through-put, bicycles or whatever the issue of the day may be. Then we can examine and evaluate solutions to see if they work.
At 44th/Merrimount, Island Crest Way curves to the north. A rise on the southeast obscures visibility for cars entering from 44th to see northbound Island Crest Way traffic. Traffic studies reflecting an average speed of 43 mph highlight the problem and T-bone accidents have occurred when traffic enters from 44th. This is a genuine and serious problem, both in frequency and severity, needing to be addressed.
There is another problem, however; principally for pedestrians/joggers. Under state law, "Rules of the Road," each of the four ways across this intersection are pedestrian walkways. At present, only the western crosswalk across Merrimount is lined. Both routes across Island Crest Way are crosswalks, albeit unlined, unmarked and unsigned. Eastbound crossers have good sight distances. Westbound crossers have the same restricted sight distances as drivers entering from 44th and cross at their peril. As there are very few marked and signed crosswalks on the 20 blocks south of 40th on Island Crest Way, this intersection is regularly used by pedestrians, at their peril.
Both problems result from the restricted sight distance caused by the rise on the southeast corner. What to do?
Start with the simple solution. Condemn the property on the southeast corner, cut down the rise, increase the radius of the northbound curve and improve the sight distances. In short, fix the real problem, then deal with the smaller issues, improving crosswalks, signage, etc.; admittedly expensive and disruptive.
If not, then consider the next simplest solution: if you can't solve the problem, eliminate it. Close 44th. It is half closed under the interim experiments with PVC pipe solutions, although I have seen two vehicles make prohibited turns from Island Crest Way onto 44th going uphill into the opposing westbound lane, one a pizza delivery truck, another an unrecognized SUV. This would solve not only the T-bone risk but also the risk of the three-quarters collision (right rear) of drivers entering Island Crest Way northbound from 44th, still a genuine and significant risk. (Note that this does not solve the pedestrian problem, to be addressed later.)
If you can't solve it or eliminate it, control it. Put in a traffic signal. It can keep 44th open, both directions. It affords positive control of traffic and pedestrians. It should be as "smart" as the light at 40th, which does an outstanding job of both regulating traffic and facilitating it, while protecting pedestrians.
The argument against a light is cost, notwithstanding that it is the only real solution short of a higher cost condemnation. We apparently have the money for a new light on 40th, presumably to appease PEAK opponents, and two lights downtown, replacing four-way stops to appease merchants and improve traffic flow, not safety. Houston, we have a priority problem!
The three-lane, 1-T-1 configuration is not a solution or even a reasonable compromise, as it does not address the real problems, but rather some ill-expressed notions of an idyllic Island, all of us bicycling, smelling the rhododendrons or jogging, hopefully without any exhaust smells anywhere. Some of us have to get to work, deliver our kids to activities, but most are probably too busy to weigh in. The losses are clear. What do we gain?
With the 1-T-1, sight restrictions are slightly mitigated, moving the northbound lane slightly west. It leaves pedestrians at risk. It wastes our historical investment in an arterial. It probably moves more traffic onto West and East Mercer Ways, for whose benefit?
The 1-T-1 may favor bicycles, but why don't we put our focus on where they cycle and improve the bicycle lanes on our Mercers?
At a minimum, improve things for pedestrians — pedestrian-actuated lighted crosswalks, as we have near Island Park; better crosswalk signage, north and south on Island Crest Way. Then hope we haven't traded a T-bone for a pedestrian fatality.