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News / Clark County News

WSDOT officials seek input on Highway 500 safety issues

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 1, 2018, 8:19pm
3 Photos
Traffic piles up on eastbound state Highway 500 at Northeast 42nd Avenue/Falk Road during the evening rush hour on Tuesday. More than an accident per week happens at the intersections of 54th Avenue/N.E. Stapleton Road and Northeast 42nd Avenue/Falk Road. Now WSDOT is searching for ways to make them safer.
Traffic piles up on eastbound state Highway 500 at Northeast 42nd Avenue/Falk Road during the evening rush hour on Tuesday. More than an accident per week happens at the intersections of 54th Avenue/N.E. Stapleton Road and Northeast 42nd Avenue/Falk Road. Now WSDOT is searching for ways to make them safer. Ariane Kunze/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Drive state Highway 500 as part of your commute through Vancouver? Odds are you’ve seen quite a few fender benders.

In the last five years, there have been just under 400 crashes on state Highway 500 at the intersections of Northeast 42nd Avenue/Falk Road and Northeast 54th Avenue/Stapleton Road. That translates to about one crash every four days at two traffic lights less than one mile apart.

Now the Washington State Department of Transportation is looking for ways to improve driving conditions on the highway, especially at those two intersections. On Wednesday, the agency launched a study to tackle the problem, starting with a public survey.

“We need input from people who use the road to help us make the right investment at the right place,” Carley Francis, WSDOT regional planning director, said in a news release.

To Learn More:

• To learn more about WSDOT’s Highway 500 safety study, visit: bit.ly/2oA9ftS

• To give WSDOT feedback on the two intersections, take its online survey at bit.ly/2CRtLdZ

As Vancouver has grown, so has traffic on Highway 500. WSDOT estimates that 30 percent more people are using the roadway today than about 10 years ago.

Crashes happen most often during hours of high congestion. Of the nearly 400 crashes WSDOT counted in the last five years, nearly 300 of them were rear-end collisions involving multiple vehicles. Francis said that detail reveals a lot about how drivers are thinking as they travel Highway 500.

“Those intersections are particularly challenging, because we have two signals in the middle of two interchanges. Driver expectation is mixed in those two corridors,” Francis said in an interview with The Columbian. “In other corridors, you’ll see they’re just stoplight corridors or just interchange corridors.”

People expect to drive differently while on a highway and where traffic merges in and out than they would on an arterial street with metered intersections. But Highway 500 combines those two layouts; Northeast 42nd and 54th avenues, two metered intersections, are sandwiched between St. Johns Road and Northeast Andresen Road, two interchanges. The agency has previously made efforts to improve the intersections, but they’ve never been funded at the state level.

Around 2009, when WSDOT was planning to reconstruct the way St. Johns Road tied into Highway 500, officials also had a long-term vision of changing the two intersections. Planners wanted to build a bridge to carry Northeast 42nd Avenue/Falk Road over the highway and disconnect it altogether. They also wanted to build a new interchange at Northeast 54th Avenue/Stapleton Road. WSDOT completed an environmental assessment for the two projects, but the proposals didn’t get much further.

Whatever solutions WSDOT finds as a result of the current study will likely fall short of a major capital project. Regional WSDOT officials are looking for what they call “practical solutions” to fix the safety issues at the intersections. That might mean warning lights that alert drivers to traffic backing up at a stoplight.

“What’s the best bang for our buck? We don’t want to go with the cheapest options, but we want the most benefit for the longest period of time for the least amount of money,” said WSDOT spokeswoman Tamara Greenwell.

Depending on how well the smaller solutions work, Greenwell said, “interchanges and overpasses might not be the best solution.”

WSDOT is working with Clark County and the city of Vancouver to address the issue. WSDOT officials plan to meet with the Vancouver City Council to discuss the issue during a workshop later this month.

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Columbian staff writer