Plans for a $13 million roundabout project could improve traffic flow downtown and beautify the entrance to the United States, Washington State Department of Transportation (DOT) officials said last week.
During their regular meeting August 10, Blaine City Council listened to testimony from DOT officials who called it "a golden opportunity for Blaine" and boasted the project’s potential to improve traffic flow on D Street and Peace Portal Drive near the I-5 exit 276.
Of the two single-lane roundabouts planned, one will replace the two stoplights at the intersection of Peace Portal Drive and Marine Drive. The other will replace the stoplight on the east side of the freeway at the intersection of D and Second streets.
Traffic engineer Dina Swires said the project will result in reduced emissions, more green space, better pedestrian walkways, new street lighting and a “beautifully landscaped gateway” into the community.
In addition, Swires said the roundabouts will accommodate Blaine’s projected traffic increases at that intersection for up to 20 years without having to tap into the city’s road improvement fund.
The project is paid for by federal transportation improvement funds and is required as a mitigation effort by the General Services Administration (GSA) for its redevelopment of the Peace Arch port of entry.
“This is a unique opportunity for Blaine because, as it is, there is not immense congestion and usually a certain amount of traffic congestion is needed to compete for federal funds,” Swires said. “Further, the state usually grants road improvement funds based on the number of crashes so Blaine probably wouldn’t be able to get DOT funds, either.
“So it is in a unique position to make improvements in the community because it is right by the border and GSA is required to make those improvements for the construction of the building at the border crossing.”
Not everyone agrees, however. The meeting comes after much public debate over perceived traffic problems and economic impacts to local businesses such the Subway sandwich store on the corner of Marine and Peace Portal drives.
Canadian resident Dale Schrader, who owns two Subway sandwich stores in Blaine, said the proposed one-lane roundabout at that corner would remove nine of the parking spaces in front of his store and he fears he would be forced to close it if the project goes through.
Blaine public works director Steve Banham said because the DOT acquired access rights, which restrict egress and ingress from the street, during the 1960s, Schrader was never “entitled” to the parking spaces according to the property deed.
Banham, however, said the city would like to work with Schrader to develop a compromise.
“Although he was never entitled to those parking spaces, he’s still a local business owner and because of that, we want to work with him,” he said. “We want to do what we can to help Mr. Schrader stay in business.”
Project engineer Chris Damitio said the situation between Schrader and the DOT is unfortunate because they were not aware the business was operating out of compliance with their rights of ways.
In a prior public meeting, several residents, including Schrader, also wanted to know where traffic would go in the event of a train line-up or border back-up.
Many said they had concerns that the circular median in the roundabout would eliminate one lane that is currently used by motorists to circumvent long traffic backups.
Schrader added that he has collected 200 signatures from downtown business owners and residents who oppose the project.
“Right now, there’s enough road width for traffic to go north along Peace Portal Drive and D Street,” Schrader said. “But if you put the roundabout in there the traffic is going to get completely snarled.”
Swires said she didn’t see much a difference between a traffic back-up in a roundabout and one in a signal-controlled intersection, except that a signalized intersection adds further disruption to traffic flow.
“We did incorporate the railroad crossing and train movements, and our modeling shows it would operate safely,” she said. “Traffic is a lot like water. People figure it out and find the path of least resistance.”
Although the DOT officials have created simulations based on local traffic counts, many Blaine residents said there were other factors specific to Blaine’s location.
Swires said she took that directive from citizens and interviewed several city officials such as Blaine police chief Mike Haslip and assistant public works director Bill Bullock who may have a deeper local knowledge of Blaine’s traffic circulation but found no substantial concerns.
She also added that they looked into the question of whether the single-lane roundabouts are large enough to accommodate large vehicles in the roadway. That would include tractor-trailers and trucks hauling boats, she said.
“We have computer tools that take the design and exact measurements of the types of vehicles that use that particular intersection and they leave a path as they drive it on screen,” she said. “That’s precisely how we know what size it should be. We do that every time we design a roundabout. If we can’t explain why we’re taking the actions we’re taking then there’s something wrong.”
Swires, however, said there were concerns about traffic spikes during holidays like the Fourth of July but that both a signal and a roundabout would incur the same congestion during such peaks.
“It’s not a great traffic situation on July Fourth either with the signal or without the signal, it will still be congested and difficult,” she said “You’re going to have the same traffic flow.”
Swires said similar situation discussed is the possibility of a border closure and the northbound off ramp not being available for use.
“With a signal or not, the law enforcement said they would put a barricade to preclude drivers from using it, so either with a signal or a roundabout, the traffic would be the same,” she said. “The conclusion and the consensus was people saw what the diagram would essentially be the same with the signal or with the roundabout.
“With the roundabout, however, it’s a little easier to do u-turns and keep traffic flowing if they decided that the northbound onramp was not their destination.”
DOT project engineer Todd Harrison added: “The one difference is that with a roundabout, people can choose to continue on safely and take a different trip whereas with the signal, the lights are activated and traffic is stopped.”
Construction is planned to begin in spring of 2010, just after the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. They are expected to be completed by late that fall.