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News / Clark County News

After complaints, county removes part of median on Minnehaha Street

By Jake Thomas, Columbian political reporter
Published: July 23, 2018, 6:05am
4 Photos
A recently installed median on Northeast Minnehaha Street stands out with its fresh coat of paint. But farther down the line, there’s a black mark where portions of it were removed after business owners complained.
A recently installed median on Northeast Minnehaha Street stands out with its fresh coat of paint. But farther down the line, there’s a black mark where portions of it were removed after business owners complained. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Morgan Filbin said that over the last week, customers have been a lot less angry when coming into the Northeast Minnehaha Street Ace Hardware where she works as a sales associate.

The cause of their anger began in mid-May, when she recalled a construction contractor showing up in the store’s parking lot and asking where to park trucks to begin installing a median on Northeast Minnehaha Street, which many customers rely on to get to her store and others nearby. She said that earlier that year, the store had received notice that the median would be installed later in the summer, and the arrival of the construction crew was unexpected.

“Okay, I guess that’s what’s happening,” said Filbin recalling her reaction.

What would normally be the routine installation of traffic safety infrastructure quickly became an unexpected headache for a pocket of businesses in Hazel Dell. After the median was installed, many customers had to drive around the block and cross a busy highway to access the businesses. Filbin recalled customers arriving irate, and she worried they’d take their business somewhere more convenient.

But after business owners complained to Clark County officials, the county took the unusual step of removing part of the median. Although customers are now more tranquil, it came at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars.

Clark County Councilor Julie Olson, whose district includes the businesses, said that the lesson the county learned from the ordeal is to better follow the appropriate processes and allow for enough public outreach before completing a project like this.

“So we kind of had to go backward and fix it,” she said.

Safety first

In a written response to questions, Clark County Public Works Director Heath Henderson said his department’s biggest priority is safety and it’s always looking to reduce the frequency and severity of motor vehicle crashes.

He said the county identified the section of Northeast Minnehaha Street as being particularly prone to traffic collisions, ranking in the “top 5 percent of roadway safety concerns” for the county. He explained that when Public Works prepares for an asphalt overlay, it also conducts a safety audit on the section of the road because it’s more cost-effective to make safety improvements in concert with other upgrades.

In March, Public Works sent out 182 letters to businesses and property owners who would be affected, according to Henderson. He said that 17 were returned as undeliverable, and the department received only a handful of responses.

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In an interview, he said the county had planned to install a median on Northeast Minnehaha Street and Northeast 63rd Street before it was repaved this year. But because of a contractor’s scheduling, the 700-foot median was installed along Northeast Minnehaha Street between Northeast Highway 99 and Northeast 11th Avenue during the week of May 14, according to Henderson.

“The Federal Highway Administration cites a number of reports and studies indicating that raised medians reduce crashes by anywhere from 15 percent, to more than 40 percent,” he said in a written statement.

‘All furious’

But the median meant that customers could no longer make left-hand turns into the parking lots for Filbin’s Ace Hardware, as well as a Les Schwab Tire Center and lighting fixture store Globe Lighting (neither of which responded to requests for comment).

Filbin said she watched fire trucks make U-turns to get into an apartment complex across the street. Customers driving west had to circle around the block and cross Northeast Highway 99 to get to the businesses.

“We were all furious,” said Mike Filbin, the owner of Filbin’s Ace Hardware.

He said that he keeps an electronic counter that tracks how many customers enter his store. He said that since the median was installed, his store saw a 20-percent reduction in foot traffic compared to this time last year. He said that the situation was particularly worrisome given the prevalence and ease of online shopping.

“Anytime you interrupt the convenience of the customer, you risk losing the customer,” he said.

After the median was installed, he said, he received constant complaints from customers who entered the store angry because of the median. He said that he’s seen accidents on the street, but said most of it was “really fender-bender stuff.”

Upset business owners complained to the county council and Public Works. Olson said in a recent county council meeting that she heard complaints from business owners who felt like the installation of the median was rushed.

Henderson said that county management and staff held meetings to explain the rationale for the median and to hear the concerns of business owners. Henderson said business owners expressed concern that the median created new safety issues, such as increased U-turns.

“When we met with them, they had some good feedback,” said Henderson “They are right there; they see the traffic every day. We listened to what they had to say.”

In response, the county last week removed 500 feet of the median, leaving a segment at the intersection of Northeast Highway 99. According to Henderson, it cost approximately $25,000 to install the median and another $20,000 to remove most of it. He said he can only think of one time this has happened before.

Right down the middle

Greg Lee, who works “odds-and-ends jobs,” said that he comes to Filbin’s Ace Hardware enough where the median had become a significant inconvenience. He said that going around the block is dangerous and that there is limited visibility on part of Northeast Highway 99 that slopes upwards.

“There are times I have a job to get to,” said Lee, who added that he hopes the county leaves it alone.

However, the county still plans to put in “traffic candles” intended to improve safety by controlling left turns into businesses’ parking lots. This will mean that customers won’t be able to make a left turn out. But Morgan Filbin said as long as customers can get into the store, staff can work with them on directions to get them on their way.

Left turns out of the Les Schwab Tire Center will be permitted because of the large trucks that need to exit the site, according to Henderson.

Henderson said that Public Works is developing an improved process for evaluating medians that will include expanded outreach to potentially affected businesses and property owners.

Councilor John Blom said that while the incident was unfortunate, it was a good example of the machinery of county government being responsive to concerns from the public. He said that as the county considers installing medians, it should take into account their economic impact and how they might affect people’s livelihoods.

“We obviously want to make our roads as safe as possible,” he said. “But we don’t want to put people out of business.”

Columbian political reporter