Agenciesdebate how to slow traffic from 80 MPH

Published on Thu, May 11, 2006 by eg Olson

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Agencies debate how to slow traffic from 80 MPH

By Meg Olson

How do you fit together a highway, designed to keep people moving and give them choices, and a border facility, designed to stop and scrutinize travelers?

State transportation engineers came to Blaine city council May 8 to share some possible answers and hear what the city’s priorities would be as they plan a reconfigured exit 276.

Jay Drye, engineering manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Mt. Baker area, said they needed to change how they usually plan for traffic moving at 80 miles per hour, while the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) wants both north and southbound traffic slowing to 30 miles per hour, and then stopping. “If we’re going to bring these vehicles from 80 to almost stopped we have to do it in a consistent manner,” Drye said. “We’re trying to change the character of the roadway so it doesn’t look like a big open freeway.”

Drye said the northbound lanes would be reconfigured from the truck route exit to slow traffic with narrowing lanes, grass shoulders and landscaping. “We’ve even talked about the possibility of putting in some curves,” he said.

Council member Bonnie Onyon said provisions needed to be included to allow local traffic off the freeway at the D Street exit when northbound traffic was backed up. “I’ll drive on the shoulder before I wait in line for access to my town,” she said.

The northbound exit and onramp at D Street is not likely to move, Drye said, unless the proposed elevated northbound lanes, which go over the new border facility and secondary area in the latest design from the general services administration (GSA) need to widen and move east to accommodate a return to Canada ramp.

The thorny question will be how to get traffic coming out of the inspection facility off the freeway and into Blaine, especially considering a new requirement from DHS that all traffic pass through the secondary inspection area on their way out. “Things got pretty stirred up with this,” said Drye.

“That is amazing,” said Blaine public works director Steve Banham looking at a drawing showing southbound traffic passing through 10 primary inspection lanes then merging into a narrow loop to the east through parking stalls for secondary inspection and the entrance to the port building. “You’ll have thousands of interaction points for potential conflicts.”

On the plus side, Banham said, the long loop around will give drivers more decision time before they get to the exit into Blaine, which has been a problem in the existing configuration and promised to get worse as the new facility was pushed south.

Drye said that they were continuing to consider the option of moving the southbound offramp further to the south and adding a loop exit on to 3rd and F streets.

“It would be a pretty major project with major impacts both to the environment and to property and we’d rather not do that if we can find another solution,” Drye said. Council member Jason Overstreet said that, even though it would be more work, he felt the loop ramp was the best for Blaine.

The problem, said council member John Liebert, was letting southbound travelers know Blaine was there and what the town had to offer.

“Perhaps there could be signs on the Canadian side saying the three lanes on the right go to Blaine,” he suggested, while the other lanes were for travelers heading down the freeway.

As far as timing of the project, Drye said they were trying to develop engineering alternatives so when the GSA design becomes final, they’ll be ready with their own design that minimizes the impact the new border facility has on traffic movement. “If we’re going to wrap it up by 2009 it’s going to have to be pretty quick,” he said.

City manager Gary Tomsic voiced concerns that the GSA design kept changing in response to the latest DHS requirements, and this could ultimately mean a half-baked transportation solution.

“Someone’s going to pull the national security thing really high up and everything else will just have to fit in,” he worried. “I’ve watched GSA and customs as far as transportation concerns and it’s not their problem and they’re not paying for it.”

Drye said their working group now contained well-placed decision makers in both DHS and the federal highways administration.
“Everyone realizes we’re dealing with a unique situation,” he said. “It may not be perfect for everybody’s interest and there will have to be compromises.”

A final environmental impact statement for the border facility is anticipated in June. “We’ll sit back and see what their final proposal will be and then decide what changes we make to keep it functional,” Drye said.