Push to ban big trucks from West 39th Street raises bigger issues

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Lincoln neighborhood residents want the city to ban big trucks from using West 39th Street. And members of the Vancouver City Council acknowledge the two-lane street wasn’t built for the tractor-trailer rigs that use it to get from Interstate 5 to industrial areas.

But the issue illustrates a bigger problem about freight access for which there are no simple fixes.

Chad Eiken, the city’s director of community and economic development, said if the city was being designed today, “it’s unlikely we’d put 40 percent of our industrial lands on one side of our downtown, with the main interstate system on the other side,” and historic neighborhoods in between.

“But that’s the development pattern we’re stuck with,” Eiken said during a March 17 workshop with the city council.

Eiken will request an estimated $100,000 in the spring supplemental budget to pay for a yearlong traffic study, to see what type of trucks are using the four arterials (39th Street, Northwest 78th Street, and Mill Plain and Fourth Plain boulevards) to get from Interstate 5 to the industrial area along Fruit Valley Road and at the Port of Vancouver. The city also wants to know where the trucks are coming from and going to, and how traffic patterns change throughout the day.

The port and other industrial areas are essential to the city’s economy, Eiken said, and the businesses rely on the east-west arterials.

Eiken said the data collected in the study will help the city determine how, as the industrial areas continue to develop, the arterials can serve increasing truck and automobile traffic while preserving neighborhoods and a revitalized downtown.

During the March 17 workshop, Councilor Bart Hansen asked if a sign could be posted on Interstate 5 to inform truck drivers to use Northwest 78th Street instead of 39th Street. An existing sign tells commercial port traffic to use Mill Plain Boulevard, the city’s preferred route.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt shared Hansen’s enthusiasm from shifting truck traffic from 39th to the four-lane 78th Street, saying it’s “built like an aircraft carrier out there on 78th. There’s plenty of room.”

However, 78th Street sits outside of Vancouver city limits, under county jurisdiction. There’s also a hill down to Northwest Lakeshore Avenue, which Jeff Mize, spokesman of the Clark County Public Works department, says has a 6 percent grade.

Theresa Wagner, spokeswoman for the Port of Vancouver, said anecdotal evidence from truck drivers suggests drivers don’t like navigating the hill.

Mize said at this point, the county has no plans to install signs on Interstate 5 directing industrial traffic to use 78th Street.

“The county has had only preliminary conversations with the city and port on this issue. There would need to be considerably more discussion, including with the community, before the county would act,” Mize wrote in an email.

Few solutions

About 80 people attended a neighborhood association meeting on March 12 at Lincoln Elementary School, said Jason Seybold, chairman of the association’s transportation committee. Councilors Anne McEnerny-Ogle, Alishia Topper and Hansen attended to hear the concerns about truck traffic, and Seybold said he has Councilors Larry Smith, Jack Burkman and Leavitt scheduled to attend a June 11 meeting at Latte Da, where the neighborhood group will again discuss traffic on 39th Street.

The March 12 meeting went really well, Seybold wrote in an email.

“It is a work in progress but definitely moving in the right direction,” he wrote.

The city anticipated traffic would increase on 39th Street following the November 2010 opening of a new, $19 million bridge that the state Department of Transportation built over railroad tracks at the 39th Street crossing. The city worked with the Lincoln Neighborhood Association to pay for $600,000 worth of upgrades on 39th Street, including signing, striping and pedestrian signal improvements.

At the March 17 council workshop, City Manager Eric Holmes said while the city will pay to do a traffic study, there may be other steps to give residents relief in the short term. For example, street signs that identify 39th as a truck route, which were posted to discourage truck drivers from using residential streets, will likely be removed because they send the wrong message.

“It’s pretty clear this is a priority for us. … There are a lot of folks really engaged in this, and waiting a year just isn’t tolerable,” Holmes said.

Hansen said he blames cell phones that instruct truck drivers to use the fastest route, a theory confirmed by Topper, who said her mother drives tractor-trailers.

She said she asked her mother why drivers would take 39th, and she said, “Alishia, if it’s the fastest route, that’s where they are going to go.”

While neighbors have asked for a ban on tractor-trailers, Public Works Director Brian Carlson wrote in a Dec. 9 email to Holmes that it would not be simple.

“The first step (and it’s a major and lengthy one heavy with process) would need to be to change the (street) classification from an arterial to a collector,” Carlson wrote.

“Additionally, the city’s comprehensive plan would have to be changed and a study on what banning truck traffic on 39th Street would be needed to predict impacts on other streets. The change would also need to be approved by the state Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, Carlson wrote.

As the council considers ways to steer truck drivers away from 39th Street, they’ll likely hear from residents who live on the other arterial routes who don’t want additional traffic.

At a March 24 city council meeting, Jilayne Jordan, who lives along Fourth Plain, said she understands why people on 39th Street are upset about increased traffic. She’s been living with heavy truck traffic for 10 years, and said it was a factor she and her husband knew about when they bought their home.

Years ago the city put Fourth Plain on a “road diet,” and built sound walls along parts of Mill Plain to buffer the traffic noise from residents.

Jordan said truck drivers prefer Fourth Plain to Mill Plain because there are fewer traffic signals.

If the city bans big rigs from 39th Street, then guess where those trucks are going to go? Fourth Plain, she said.

Natural truck growth from an improving economy would be one thing, Jordan said, but forcing trucks onto fewer routes “without considering the quality of life of the people who live on those remaining routes is quite another,” she said.

“We matter as much as anyone else in the city,” she said.