Some residents upset about 3 new roundabouts on 137th, 138th

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

 
photoA traffic sign alerts motorists as they navigate their way around a new roundabout on Sept. 25 at Northeast 44th Street and 137th Avenue.

(/The Columbian)

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Navigating a traffic circle:

• For detailed instructions on how to drive through a roundabout, visit the Washington Department of Transportation website.

Projects:

Northeast 137th/138th Avenue Improvement Project

Salmon Creek Interchange Project

If you bring up the topic of roundabouts, you'll likely find yourself circling around a continuing set of arguments over their ease of use and function.

In Vancouver, the newest round in the debate has found a home at Vancouver's $14.6 million Northeast 137th/138th Avenue Improvement Project in the Parkside neighborhood.

That project is adding traffic circles in three spots: a single-lane at Northeast 32nd Street, a double-lane at Northeast 39th Street, and a single-lane at Northeast 44th Street designed "to provide U-turn options, better connect the neighborhood and help manage traffic flow," according to the city's website.

Columbian readers and residents have been complaining that the project is too expensive and inefficient.

"The one at the intersection with Northeast 32nd Circle is a total waste of taxpayer funds. That intersection serves only 10 houses on the west and two houses on the east. In addition, both streets are dead ends," Allen Rogers of Vancouver wrote in a Sept. 21 letter to the editor.

"I would certainly like to hear the logic that was presented in approving the new roundabouts at Northeast 32nd Circle and at Northeast 44th Street. I thought roundabouts were designed to keep traffic moving through busy cross streets with minimal slowing," Duane Huntley of Vancouver wrote in an Aug. 17 letter to the editor.

Huntley uses the road frequently, he said by phone last week.

"What a total waste of money," Huntley said of the 32nd Street roundabout. "It goes no place. If it was just a plain straight road with streets and sidewalks, it would be no problem."

A different story

It's a different story northwest of the city, at the only roundabout in unincorporated Clark County.

That roundabout, which was built two years ago as part of the $133 million Salmon Creek Interchange Project at Northeast 10th Avenue and Northeast 136th Street, started with a similar round of complaints, but now there's hardly a bad word spoken about it.

Paul Scarpelli, president of the North Salmon Creek Neighborhood Association, says he's even grown to like it.

"I think people have had a little bit of a learning curve there, but I think that's all smoothed out now and people get the gist of it," Scarpelli said.

When the circle first went in, some residents said they were concerned that it was too small and narrow for tractor-trailers.

But the feature includes a raised island in the middle for the vehicles called a "truck apron" that acts as an extra lane for large vehicles. A truck's back wheels can ride up on the apron, allowing it to complete the turn, while the raised area also discourages cars and smaller vehicles from doing the same thing.

"When it was under construction, people were concerned that it was not going to work," said Rob Klug, a traffic signal engineer with Clark County Public Works. "But it's quite elegant, actually."

Truck aprons are fairly standard on newer traffic circles, he added.

Look at whole project

Still, a similar feature is drawing criticism in the Parkside project. Paul E. Gage of Vancouver noted turning problems associated with the feature in his Aug. 3 letter:

"The monolith that is in the middle of the street does not allow anyone living on the east side of 138th Street to go south," he wrote. "They have to go up to the next roundabout and go completely around it before heading south. Reverse it on the west side where you can only go south, and if you want to go north, you have to go to the next roundabout."

Loretta Callahan, a spokesperson for Vancouver Public Works, said there are many driveways along the road and safety issues with cars making left turns in and out of them. So, one of the main goals is "to create safe left turn movements and allow for through lanes," she said.

Brian Carlson, director of Vancouver Public Works, said it's important to look at the project as a whole rather than at individual intersections.

"It's working completely as designed," Carlson said. "It's a corridor improvement project, not just a single intersection."

Prior to the project, the roadway had "substandard pavement conditions, dirt shoulders, and ditches for stormwater runoff. A majority of the corridor had no center turn lanes, bike lanes, sidewalks or streetlights," according to the city's website.

Carlson, who said he used to drive the route regularly, said it had "backups during rush hour. It was horrid."

The department evaluated several other plans before starting the project, and this plan seemed to be the most cost-effective and best way to move traffic, he added.

It's also the only solution that would meet growing traffic demands in the area, Carlson said.

About 13,000 cars pass through the corridor daily, but that number is expected to double by 2030.

When work is complete this fall, the hope is that the complaints will die down as people become more used to navigating the area.

An information campaign helped with similar problems in Salmon Creek. At that site, the county gave residents informational sheets about the roundabout and how it works while construction was still in progress, Scarpelli said.

The North Salmon Creek area has been subjected to a lot of construction over the past two years as part of the larger Interchange Project, including the addition of a C-Tran Park & Ride Lot that Clark County Public Works put in at the same time as the traffic circle. The county is also working on widening Northeast 10th Avenue north of the roundabout in the Whipple Creek area, and it plans to eventually build a bridge that will allow access to the Clark County Fairgrounds area.

And beyond that, the Washington State Department of Transportation is continuing work on the new interchange at Northeast 139th and 134th streets in Salmon Creek.

"We've had a lot of growth," Scarpelli said. "This needed to be done. We're really very happy (with it)."

Big improvements

When the project started, 10th Avenue was a lot like the stretch of 137th/138th Avenue across town that's under construction.

Two years ago, 10th Avenue was a two-lane, poorly lit road with intermittent sidewalks that made it dangerous for families to walk to the store. Now the road has full sidewalks and better lighting, and traffic flows more smoothly, Scarpelli said.

"With the construction, there's dust and everything still — I just stopped washing my car," Scarpelli said with a laugh. "But it's getting closer to the end, and we're all looking forward to that."

Clark County Public Works completed a comprehensive study of the area before deciding to install the traffic circle, which remains the only one in unincorporated Clark County, Klug said.

"When I look at it from an operations standpoint, it works very well," Klug said. "It handles the ebb and flow of people coming out of the Park & Ride very efficiently."

The department monitors the area through surveillance cameras and analyzes traffic flow periodically. The light signals in the area also have smart features — when traffic backs up, they automatically switch patterns to improve traffic flow, Klug said.

"It's a very specialized operation we have in there," Klug said.

Scarpelli said he hasn't heard of anybody having problems with the circle for a long time.

"I haven't seen a single accident, no bumpers or fenders or anything else left over from folks not figuring it out," Scarpelli said.