LACEY - Shirley Savage has seen many crashes as the longtime office manager of a dental clinic along one of the city's busiest streets.
Last year’s installation of a center median on College Street, which prevents left turns to and from 14th Avenue Southeast, reduced the number of crashes, she said. It introduced a new problem, however.
“It has created quite a hassle as far as our patients go,” Savage said.
The median prevents patients heading north on College Street from turning into the driveway of the clinic, Alpine Dental Center. Savage advises patients to turn onto the side streets south of 14th Avenue to loop around and reach the clinic.
She lives on one of these streets, 14th Way Southeast.
The city has developed a temporary solution to appease neighbors concerned that the median’s installation has increased traffic on 14th Way.
Neighbors appear supportive of the fix, which would allow only right turns onto or out of 14th Way. They warn, however, that it will push the problem to neighboring side streets.
The dilemma illustrates the strain of increasing traffic volumes on the aging corridor and the unintended consequences of interim fixes until the city completes a planned $30 million reconstruction of the thoroughfare’s older residential stretch.
For years, 14th Avenue Southeast was an alternative for drivers headed to and from Olympia who didn’t want to be held up by traffic lights at Lacey Boulevard and Pacific Avenue. Its proximity to the signalized intersections and the increasing traffic on College Street made it a collision-prone intersection.
Public Works Director Scott Egger said there were typically about a dozen collisions a year at the intersection of College and 14th Avenue. There has been one collision since the city installed the center median in March.
Drivers were undeterred. They just started turning onto other side streets to reach Golf Club Road and continue on 14th Avenue Southeast.
“More cars started turning here,” said Ron Holden, who has lived on 14th Way for a decade. “They started using our street.”
Neighbors grew worried. The street is narrow. There are no sidewalks. Children walk down the street to Mountain View Elementary School or the nearby corner store.
“They’re all over the street,” Holden said. “Kids don’t pay attention to walk against the traffic.”
Neighbors began writing City Hall with their concerns starting in December and recommended three possible solutions.
In response, the city conducted several traffic studies. Officials concluded in a Jan. 11 letter to neighbors that about 100 more vehicles were using 14th Way each day than before the median’s installation, a 16 percent increase. They also found that most drivers were travelling at or below 28 mph, slightly above the posted speed limit but not out of the ordinary for a neighborhood street.
The city invited concerned neighbors to a Jan. 20 meeting at City Hall to discuss the findings and neighbors’ recommendations.
One recommendation was to remove the median. The city opposed this idea because of safety concerns.
Another idea was to extend the median past 14th Way. The city responded that that was problematic because it would bar left turns for tenants of the Diamond Head Apartments on the opposite side of College.
The last idea supported by neighbors and embraced by the city was installation of an island to allow only right turns in and out of 14th Way.
Within two weeks, the city will send out surveys to ask neighbors to formally approve the fix. The city will move ahead with the low-cost project if at least 60 percent of them give their blessing. If approved, the island could be installed within two months, Egger said.
Neighbors said the traffic flow will migrate.
“Fifteenth Avenue is going to get as bad,” Savage said, referring to a neighboring street. “Sixteenth Avenue is going to get as bad.”
Egger acknowledged the potential for a continued domino effect but noted that the incentive to cut through side streets is diminished the farther south drivers turn from Lacey Boulevard because it’s less convenient. He said the city would send notices to alert neighbors along 15th Avenue of the improvement project on 14th Way, if approved.
The median installation is a precursor to the future of the College Street corridor.
Last year, the City Council adopted a plan to reconstruct College Street from Lacey Boulevard to 37th Avenue to relieve congestion and improve safety. The project would take at least two decades to complete.
The reconstructed College Street would retain two travel lanes in each direction and install a center median, wider sidewalks and bike lanes. The median would improve traffic flow and safety by limiting left turns onto and out of side streets and driveways. Median breaks and roundabouts would provide access to side streets.
The project will be broken up into numerous phases. Construction of a roundabout on 22nd Avenue is the first order of business. Design is scheduled to begin this year.
Egger said the roundabouts will be installed before the center medians so drivers who need to turn left can reach their destinations without too much inconvenience.
He said there’s the potential the city will install other center medians at collision-prone intersections on a case-by-case basis while the construction project is proceeding.
Councilman Ron Lawson, who started his term earlier this month, opposes the city’s plan for College Street and favors replacing the center median with a center turn lane because he says it’s less expensive and more convenient for residents along some of the side streets. City staff members will present the background and history of the adopted plan to the full council at a future work session. It remains to be seen if there’s support from other council members to significantly amend the plan.
Christian Hill: 360-754-5427