WSDOTproposes traffic circles on freeway, D Street

Published on Thu, Jun 15, 2006 by ack Kintner

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WSDOT proposes traffic circles on freeway, D Street

By Jack Kintner

Blaine’s third major construction project of the year gets underway this summer with the anticipated final approval at the end of the month of plans for the new customs building at the Peace Arch to be constructed by the General Services Administration (GSA).

The final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project, including the final design choice, was presented June 8 at the Blaine Senior Center by staff from the GSA’s Auburn office. It was the last of a series of public meetings and formal hearings going back to 1998 when the project began.

When Michael Bogert, the administrator for region 10 of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), signs off on the final EIS for the project following a 30-day comment period that began June 1, the project’s planning phase officially ends and construction will begin in phased steps.

The first step for the GSA will be to finish acquiring the land and 11 single family houses and one tri-plex in the roughly two city block area into which the customs facility and its parking lot will expand. Once properties have been acquired the actual construction “should go smoothly,” said the GSA’s Mark Howard, who added that the GSA will make every effort to stick to their schedule that has the project completed one month before the 2010 Winter Olympics begin in Vancouver.

Several design features will make the new crossing seem like a radical departure from the present 30-year-old building. Much of the structure will either be or appear to be underground.

At the insistence of the Department of Homeland Security, the design includes space (but not structures) to conduct searches of out-bound vehicles (e.g. northbound on I-5 to Canada).

Pedestrians and bicycles will approach the primary inspection area on a dedicated path completely separate from the road.

The quality of surface water run-off will dramatically improve as current outmoded oil-water separators will be replaced in the neighborhood with state of the art units.

Mike Neurenberger, the GSA’s project manager, said that he plans to keep the D Street interchange open during the project, and to “continue on-going talks” with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

One early hold-up in the planning process came from disagreements between the WSDOT and GSA over how the project would impact and perhaps seal off access to Blaine for southbound traffic. GSA wanted to move the project’s footprint south, but WSDOT resisted, saying that they already were short of room for a safe interchange.

“We learned about this in Bellingham,” said assistant project engineer Patrick Fuller, “when we didn’t stand our ground and now we have some substandard and unsafe interchanges. We resisted that here.”
To help solve the space problem, which leads to congestion and traffic jams, Fuller said the plan incorporates traffic circles, or round-abouts, two of which will replace the lighted intersections on either end of the D Street underpass and one that will collect traffic from primary and secondary inspection. The circles would then give motorists a choice of exiting to Blaine or out onto what soon widens into the two southbound lanes of the freeway.

“The whole idea of the circle that you’ll enter right after inspection is to slow people down,” said Blaine’s director of public works Steve Banham, “and hopefully this will help people who are southbound to find their way into Blaine more easily.

Now, unless you know what you’re doing, most tourists miss the first exit and then can’t get off for six miles. The new design makes the Blaine exit the easier choice.”

The Blaine exit will go directly into one of the traffic circles, from which one will choose in turn to exit at the newly refurbished Marine Drive, Peace Portal Way, back on to the southbound freeway or on to D Street to pass east under the freeway.

The other one will collect and distribute traffic from the northbound off-ramp on I-5, D Street, 2nd Street the northbound I-5 on-ramp and D Street again as it goes west under the freeway. The circles will be roughly the size of those near Whatcom Community College in Bellingham.

The 30,000 square foot main building, which is the same square footage as the facility it replaces but is organized differently, is long and narrow, running from the primary inspections lanes on the west end to offices on the east end. It will separate the parking lot and the secondary inspection area.

A large sod roof will make the secondary area appear to be underground, and access to all this plus the main building itself will be underneath the raised northbound lanes of I-5 between the D Street interchange and the public restrooms in Peace Arch park.

The GSA had originally sought in the 1990s to occupy 12 acres to accommodate all the agencies present at the border, but ran into stiff local opposition when it proposed moving Peace Arch Park to the west to get more room for an expanded customs facility.

One strong voice in opposition to the GSA using part of the park for a customs building was that of Blaine resident Christina Alexander, founder of the U.S./Canada Peace Anniversary Foundation and a strong advocate for keeping the park intact.

“Then 9/11 happened, and everything changed,” said Elizabeth Healy, a traffic engineer with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Some agencies merged into the new Department of Homeland Security, and those that didn’t were encouraged to cooperate rather than just co-exist.
At this final exchange, Alexander complained to GSA officials that much of the material she had submitted for the open public record for the EIS when it was being put together had been left out of the final version.

“It’s important that the histories and the traditions be a part of the record. This place is a part of our lives,” she said.

Michael Levine of the GSA responded that “We were looking for comments to go into the record. No comments were in the material you submitted.”

“No, they were included to support comments I’ve been making all along,” Alexander said, reminding officials about one of the early meetings a few years ago where they had looked at each other and said loud enough to be heard that they couldn’t understand why people in Blaine felt the way they did about the park.

“If you’ll read the material, you’ll see why,” Alexander said. Officials agreed to make her attachments part of the official record.