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April 11, 2021

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Plan to nix crosswalk on Highway 500 draws criticism

Move by WSDOT will leave some stranded, pedestrian and bicycling advocates say

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
2 Photos
Eastbound vehicles line up just behind the crosswalk along state Highway 500 at the intersection of Northeast Stapleton Road and Northeast 54th Avenue during rush hour earlier this year. Some people worry the Washington State Department of Transportation’s plan to close the crossing for several years while it waits to secure funding to build a new, likely above-grade crossing, will temporarily put pedestrians in harm’s way.
Eastbound vehicles line up just behind the crosswalk along state Highway 500 at the intersection of Northeast Stapleton Road and Northeast 54th Avenue during rush hour earlier this year. Some people worry the Washington State Department of Transportation’s plan to close the crossing for several years while it waits to secure funding to build a new, likely above-grade crossing, will temporarily put pedestrians in harm’s way. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

As the Washington Department of Transportation moves forward with a plan to reconfigure two crash-prone intersections on state Highway 500 in October, pedestrian and bicycling advocates say the agency is moving at an unusually brisk pace and leaving some road users stranded in the process.

“WSDOT is claiming it has plans to build an above-grade pedestrian crossing in the future,” said Marcus Griffith, a local advocate for pedestrian infrastructure. “Well, the original plan was to build overpasses at these two intersections and that fell through so obviously WSDOT’s plans are not binding.”

WSDOT is set to overhaul the intersections at Northeast 42nd Avenue/Falk Road and Northeast 54th Avenue/Stapleton Road, replacing the traffic signals with right-in/right-out interchanges. The agency believes the reconfiguration will reduce the collision rate of about 80 crashes per year in the 2-mile area encompassing the two intersections by as much as 70 percent.

The pedestrian bridge connecting 42nd Avenue and Falk Road will be left in place. But 54th Avenue and Stapleton Road’s at-grade crosswalk will be removed. WSDOT plans to replace it with a new pedestrian over or underpass, but it won’t likely be built until sometime between 2021 and 2025, after funding is secured.

That plan frustrates Griffith and other pedestrian advocates.

Griffith filed an Americans with Disabilities Act discrimination complaint against WSDOT through the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. He said the agency has failed to make accommodations for disabled pedestrians during the yearslong gap between closure and construction at 54th Avenue and Stapleton Road.

“If they had a guaranteed plan and timeline, it’d be a different conversation,” Griffith said. “Instead, they’re going to take a reasonably ADA accessible intersection and get rid of it. It’s like saying, ‘I have plans to go to the moon someday, but I haven’t started building a rocket yet.'”

WSDOT Regional Planning Director Carley Francis said money for the pedestrian crossing is in a 10-year safety program budget authorized by the Legislature every biennium. While the whole budget is authorized, specific projects are not. Thus, while local WSDOT officials are confident about the funding, there is no guarantee it will come on the timeline they prefer.

“Typically, we don’t see things fluctuate more than a year or two in any direction … but the future, and in general, in the world, is uncertain,” she said. “We do need to be clear how we communicate with folks: there’s no indication it won’t be funded, and the future is what the future is. That’s our commitment.”

Earlier this month, WSDOT mailed pamphlets to area residents, explaining the changes coming to the intersections, the potential benefits and how it might affect their commute. The mailer includes four illustrations of the finished intersections, complete with a pedestrian and bike crossing from 54th Avenue to Stapleton Road; but it obfuscates when the pedestrian crossing will actually be open, referring to it as the “future/proposed pedestrian and bike crossing.”

After reconfiguring the roadway, WSDOT plans to study traffic impacts to surrounding roads “to identify any necessary secondary investments and designing and constructing a new grade-separated pedestrian and bicycle crossing” at 54th Avenue and Stapleton Road..

“Because future projects are more complex and more expensive than the initial safety improvements, they require additional time to secure funding, complete planning work, and move into design and construction,” the mailer reads.

Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said in an email city staff requested grant funding for the future crossing that, if awarded, will “allow the bridge to be built on a much quicker timeline.”

Each day, about 60,000 vehicles travel Highway 500. Earlier this summer, WSDOT counted about 30 pedestrians and 10 bicyclists’ daily crossings of the highway at 54th Avenue and Stapleton Road. WSDOT plans to do another study this fall.

It’s about a half-mile, or 12-minute, walk to Roads End Neighborhood Park on 54th Avenue from homes immediately around Stapleton south of Highway 500. But when the closure is in place, that will stretch into a roughly 2 mile, or 45-minute, walk, according to Todd Boulanger, an independent transportation consultant.

Both he and Griffith are highly skeptical that people accustomed to crossing the highway will take the long route, and they accuse WSDOT of trading fender-benders and low-speed injuries for potentially more serious vehicle-on-pedestrian collisions.

“WSDOT should catch its breath and do a phased approach,” Boulanger said. “They should avoid causing more injuries and fatalities to vulnerable individuals by not taking out a level, direct crossing and instead offering longer routes.”

Francis said WSDOT is balancing many needs and priorities for users, but significantly reducing the number of crashes on such a heavily traveled corridor is worth temporarily going without a pedestrian crossing.

“There is absolutely an effect to anybody who might be crossing 500 in that area — including pedestrians and bikes — but you have to balance that against the crashes happening on the roadway; each of those crashes have a cost to the people involved in those crashes,” Francis said. “We had folks asking, ‘Why aren’t you acting sooner?’ It’s a challenging question and not a decision made lightly.”

WSDOT is in talks with C-Tran and other organizations to offer an as-of-yet undetermined transportation service around the closing — with the intention of making it free to users.

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