Dec 17

Thoughts on Highway 47 – Part Three (Post-Open House)

In the wake of the joint open house that Washington County’s Department of Land Use and Transportation (LUT) held this past Thursday, I’d like to pass along some thoughts about the plans for the northern segment of Highway 47.

First off, I was very pleased to see a considerable turnout for the event, especially as it happened to be on the night of the big wind storm–which caused the power to blip part way through.  This is a major project that affects pretty much everyone in Forest Grove, so it’s critical to have this involvement.  I’d also like to thank the county, ODOT, and CH2M Hill representatives who took the time to come out here, answer questions and take feedback.  Special thanks to Steve from CH2M Hill and Matt Meier from Washington County, who supplied me with some more statistics, and were willing to take on the hard questions.  True to form with my posts here on this blog, I left them a lengthy and detailed comment form, with virtually every available line (and then some) filled.

To their credit, the county and CH2M Hill, to whom ODOT has outsourced this phase of project management, they’ve produced a project that, from a safety standpoint, is markedly better than what ODOT’s spokespeople were pushing in recent months.  Namely, they ditched the idea to replicate the multi-lane fiascos of Astoria and Springfield, going for single-lane configurations.  (Given the good bit of traffic I have been receiving from ODOT, Washington County, and CH2M Hill IP addresses since before the open house, I have to wonder if I may have forced their hand.)  Statistically speaking, single-lane roundabouts in Oregon have a considerably better safety record than their multi-lane counterparts, as I’ve examined in gory detail in recent posts (here and here).  And, of course, we are finally going to get that vital new east-west connection with the David Hill Road extension, which looks to be well-designed in the plans.

That said, I still have some concerns–many of which I overheard being echoed by citizens at the open house.  In what I consider to be a very good move, the county has gone ahead and posted many of the plans and displays they had at the open house on their website.  If you’d like to get a better sense of what is currently being proposed, and the county’s decision making process behind it, I’d recommend giving that a thorough look.

Now, onto the concerns.  First of all, I’m still skeptical of the idea of putting two roundabouts–even of the much safer single-lane variety–on a state major state highway, mainly because of some considerable trade-offs involved, and because I feel that there are some possible longer-term needs that this project doesn’t take into account.  I had the chance to discuss things at length with project staff, and engineer Matt Meier described these as “Roundabout 2.0” when compared with the Verboort model, as the design is intended to address some of the issues with that earlier project.  This county fact sheet from the Scholls Ferry/River Road roundabout project, from 3 years ago, sheds some light on the county’s train of thought.  Namely, the approach speeds with the existing Verboort roundabouts has been deemed to be higher than desired, in part due to the circle’s radius, and the remnants of the vestigial second lane that those roundabouts were originally intended to have allows vehicles to “cheat” the chicane on the approach.  These factors are believed to be contributing factors to the issues with truck rollovers that have occurred there.  The solution, as shown in existing Scholls Ferry/River Road roundabout, and in the proposed roundabouts for Highway 47, is to lengthen the slalom, and narrow the roadway width in the circle and the approaches.

However, this has drawn the ire not only of the farmers surrounding the project, who noted at the open house that farm equipment seems to be getting bigger, but also with the trucking industry.  This project will effectively make it borderline impossible to get into Forest Grove from Highway 26 and points north without having to traverse roundabouts, or taking Susbauer Road into Cornelius and jamming up perennially-congested Highway 8 even more.  In an April 2014 article in the News-Times, trucker Ron Garcia called the existing Verboort roundabouts a “headache”, and noted that he refuses to drive through them.  Reportedly, the USPS decided not to drive their large mail trucks through there shortly after they opened in 2003, and I personally know many non-truckers who refuse to use these roundabouts.  Tellingly, the traffic count data for the years around the opening show Highway 47’s volumes jumping considerably in 2003, when Verboort Road was closed for several months for the construction, and they stayed up for several years afterward.  The volumes for the count station north of the intersection are particularly telling in this regard, as they would suggest drivers going to/from Forest Grove via Banks, rather than using Verboort Road.

ODOT Traffic Counts for Highway 47, in Annual Average Daily Trips (AADT), 1999-2012

Year Hwy 47 N of Verboort/Purdin Hwy 47 S of Verboort/Purdin
1999 5800  7700
2000 5500  7500
2001 5600  7500
2002 5800  7700
2003 9800 9200
2004 9800 9200
2005 9600 9000
2006 7800 9700
2007 8100 10000
2008 7700 9500
2009 7800 9900
2010 7600 9700
2011 7300  9200
2012 6100  7500

As these stats show, the volume on the north counting point jumped by 4000 AADT in 2003, the year of construction (the south counting station also jumped, by a more modest 1500 AADT), and the north point volumes stayed up through 2005, dropping off afterward, but remaining about 2000-2500 trips higher than it was pre-roundabout.  The south point also continued to grow and peaked at 10000 in 2007 (the year Kaylee Tawzer was killed at the intersection), and leveled off slightly down from that.  2012 has shown anomalously low volumes at both ends of the intersection.  Per the answer I received from ODOT in April, the reason for this drop-off is unknown.  Curiously, it is not much higher than the county’s figure for Verboort Road’s volumes in 2012 (5252 AADT).

What this data would suggest is that some motorists were in fact avoiding the roundabouts for a period after construction.  My hypothesis, based on this data, and my experiences as someone who has regularly been along Verboort Road in the past two decades, here is that a good bit of this is attributable to trucks.  The county representatives remarked that they largely consider this route to be a “commuter route”, rather than a freight route, befitting the perception that Forest Grove is effectively a bedroom community of Hillsboro.

The other matter pertaining to freight usage is the county’s idea of “alternate surface for oversized trucks” on Highway 47, at both the Verboort/Purdin and David Hill roundabouts.

truckbypasslane

Verboort/Purdin roundabout design, showing “truck bypass” (facing east)

In order to build the chicanes to slow down vehicles on Highway 47, the highway is actually being moved slightly to the east at both intersections, away from the existing roadway.  As the narrower lanes will not be able to handle oversized trucks, the design calls for the old roadway, on the west side of both roundabouts, to be turned into a special “truck bypass” to accommodate these larger loads.  The main issue with this, however, is visible on the above diagram–the bypass lane (the gray and purple striped strip) runs right into the splitter island on Purdin, and the same is true with the splitter on David Hill.  The plan is to effectively block the bypass lane off with bollards, including some in the splitter islands, that will be locked during the day.  In order to use Highway 47 through this corridor, the truckers would need to obtain a special permit from ODOT, in addition to the standard oversize permit, as well as the key to unlock and temporarily move the bollards.  The real problem is that this will require the truckers to only bring these loads through very late at night, and, particularly problematic, it will require ODOT to completely close down Highway 47 during these times.  This strikes me as a particularly onerous situation, with a number of potential undesirable side effects, including truckers–oversized or not–cramming onto other routes, including the existing Verboort roundabouts (with the rollover concerns), and may even have negative impacts on Forest Grove’s ability to attract (and keep) industry.

There’s also the matter of cost.  The ODOT estimate for a single-lane configuration was $3-5 million per roundabout.  Washington County spent $2.93 million on the Scholls Ferry/River Road roundabout, and I suspect with the added expense of the “truck bypass” would push the figures on these two toward that upper figure.  By comparison, signalization could be accomplished for a mere fraction of the cost.

The main reason the county seems to be adverse to signalization is that there is not a physical impediment to the sort of right-angle crashes that have been the cause of the fatalities at Verboort/Purdin should someone run the light.  That said, the county has very recently installed multiple traffic signals along high-speed rural arterials, including one at Scholls Ferry and Tile Flat Roads, and two more along nearby Roy Rogers Road, one at Beef Bend Road, and another at Scholls-Sherwood Road.  Furthermore, aside from an anomalous 2013 with a higher-than-normal accident rate (perhaps prompted in part by nearby construction at the Hwy 26/Glencoe interchange), the Zion Church/Glencoe signal near North Plains has had a solid safety record in recent years.  I’ll have some more info on this in a subsequent post.

The traffic patterns around Forest Grove have, historically speaking, not been understood particularly well by the county, and especially by ODOT.  We need to take a longer-term look at the future roadway needs of the area–particularly with respect to east-west connectivity–and those longer-term needs are still kind of murky at present.  I still think that, in the short term, the lowest cost option of signalization will make an immediate improvement to the safety of the corridor (the core issue has been vehicles approaching Hwy 47 from Verboort not being able to tell when it is safe to cross), while we look at the bigger picture.  One idea I floated to county staff at the open house was to look at the prospect of extending David Hill Road even farther east, potentially linking it up with the proposed Evergreen/Hornecker extension out of Hillsboro, to create a corridor like Roy Rogers Road between Beaverton and Sherwood.  That would effectively take the traffic off of Verboort/Purdin, and leave just one intersection to deal with in the long run.  It would also predicate a different solution for Highway 47 in the shorter term.

The county has indicated that they will be holding further events in Forest Grove, pertaining to this important project.  I will be sure to post any news I hear on that front here.  If you weren’t able to make it to the open house and have comments or questions for the county, the contact information for them can be found here.

I’ve also opened up my own comments section here on this blog post, and I welcome your feedback.  What are your thoughts on the proposal, and on Forest Grove’s roadway needs?  I’m hoping that this can be a place for respectful community discussion and engagement about these critical issues.

-Alexander

 

Dec 05

More troubling statistics on Oregon’s dual-lane roundabouts

Washington County has finally announced a public open house to discuss their plans to “improve” Highway 47 on the northern periphery of Forest Grove, and the related David Hill Road extension.  It’ll take place on Thursday, December 11th from 5-7pm, in the Forest Grove Community Auditorium (1915 Main Street).  The official announcement itself is here.

There will be no formal presentation, but county staff (to whom ODOT has outsourced a substantial amount of project management) will be there to show plans and take feedback.  They also finally admitted publicly that they do indeed plan to build not one but two roundabouts on this section–the previously announced one at the Verboort/Purdin intersection, and, confirming the information I broke here, a second one where Highway 47 will meet the new David Hill Road extension.

In that same analysis, I broke down the statistics for the last dual-lane roundabout that ODOT built on a state highway: the one at the base of the Youngs Bay Bridge in Astoria, where US Highway 101 meets Oregon Highway 202.  While ODOT spokesman Lou Torres claimed that this roundabout “functions well“, the actual long-term crash data showed it does not.  Comparing “before” and “after” periods of equal length, I showed that this roundabout actually caused a 125% increase in injury accidents, without a reduction in the severity of those injuries.  This data stands in sharp contrast to Mr. Torres’ comments, as well as to the various roundabout studies out there, which, as I noted before, have been concerned mostly with single-lane roundabouts, rather than dual-lane ones like the one in Astoria, and the ones proposed for Highway 47.

However, being the policy nerd that I am, I couldn’t leave it at that, and I continued to pour over ODOT’s statistics for roundabouts and signalized intersections.  At the April town hall meeting that was prompted by the last fatality that occurred at the Verboort/Purdin intersection, ODOT Region 2 Manager Sonny Chickering spoke highly of the dual-lane roundabout that his hometown of Springfield built in 2006.  That roundabout exists where Pioneer Parkway, Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, Harlow Road, and Hayden Bridge Way intersect, near the Gateway Mall and Sacred Heart RiverBend Medical Center.  The speed limits on the approaches to this intersection are higher than the Astoria roundabout: Harlow and Hayden Bridge have 35mph speed limits, while Pioneer and MLK are posted at 45mph.  Per p. 2 of the brochure that the City of Springfield produced about the project, the matter of funding is discussed.  Per the listed figures, the roundabout received $9.34 million worth of funding, obtained from Lane County and PeaceHealth, plus unspecified “contributions from the City [sic]“.

City of Springfield Diagram of Dual-Lane Roundabout

City of Springfield Diagram of Dual-Lane Roundabout

How well does this $9.34 million+ roundabout function from a safety standpoint?  Because of the fact that this intersection has major roads with four different names entering it–and Pioneer Pkwy is farther divided into “West” and “East”–one has to do a search for each leg of the roundabout in order to get the full statistics from ODOT’s Crash Data System.  For the purposes of this analysis, I will use the 5-year period from 01/01/2009 (the earliest date for which data is available) to 12/31/2013.

Some of the points on the roundabout, such as Pioneer Pkwy W and Harlow Road, give off no reports, which, initially, will make this roundabout seem miraculously safe.  However, if one tries the other legs, a completely different picture emerges–see Pioneer Pkwy W and Hayden Bridge Way, Pioneer Pkwy E and Hayden Bridge Way, and Martin L King Pkwy and Hayden Bridge Way.  If we tally the results of these three documents, we now have a more accurate picture.  For a refresher, here’s how ODOT classifies accident severity:

 

Code Short Description Long Description
K Fatal injury
A Incapacitating Injury/Major Injury “Prevents person from walking, includes severe lacerations, broken limbs, abdominal injuries.”
B Non-Incapacitating Evident Injury/Moderate Injury “Evident to observers, lump on head, bruises, cuts.”
C Possible Injury/Minor Injury “Limping, momentary unconsciousness.”
O No Injury/Property Damage Only (sometimes also referred to by the acronym “PDO”)

And if we tally up the results from these three legs, we get the following results:

Approach K A B C O Total Crashes Total Injury Crashes Total Injuries
Pioneer Pkwy W/
Hayden Bridge Way
0 0 2 10 34 46 12 17
Pioneer Pkwy E/
Hayden Bridge Way
0 0 3 17 58 78 20 27
Martin L King Pkwy/
Hayden Bridge Way
0 0 2 13 42 57 15 20
TOTAL 0 0 7 40 134 181 47 64

Note that underlined cell on the above table. Per the available data, it appears that the Springfield roundabout has been the site of 181 accidents in just 5 years, which injured 64 people. The one positive is that there were no fatalities or Class A injuries, but the rest of these results suggest that this roundabout experiences an absurdly high accident rate. 181 accidents in 5 years, regardless of severity, is an astonishingly terrible number. These results, coupled with the Astoria results, should give engineers serious pause before even thinking about building more dual-lane roundabouts in Oregon.

The City of Springfield does not appear to have up-to-date traffic count information available, so it is difficult to judge the actual volume this roundabout presently receives–based on this 2008 map, the Pioneer Pkwy approach is busiest. Adding the two sides of Pioneer Pkwy together, it would appear the AADT just south of the roundabout was 19,413 at that time. Fortunately, the City of Springfield’s 2035 Transportation System Plan (TSP) does give the crash rate in the Million Entering Vehicles (MEV) figure that many traffic engineers use, and the data for the Springfield roundabout (identified as Pioneer Parkway/Hayden Bridge Way). The information can be found on p. 31 of the PDF for Volume 3, Appendix B. Here’s a screencap of the relevant table (click to enlarge):

springfieldtsp

Table 7, Vol. 3 App. B of Springfield 2035 Transportation System Plan.

As you can see by the above table, the Springfield dual-lane roundabout has a crash rate of 2.91 MEV, nearly three times the crash rate of the next worst intersection studied. (A footnote on the next page clarifies that the data for the roundabout is actually collected from the period of October 2006, when the roundabout was completed, through the end of 2009, rather than the full 2005-2009 figure used for the other intersections.)

According to Chapter 4 of the ODOT Analysis Procedures Model document (p. 2), in all its awkwardly-worded glory, “[t]he old rule of thumb wasthat intersections with a crash rate of 1.0 per MEV or greater is generally considered to be an indication that further investigation is warranted.”  The document manual then goes on to conclude that this “old rule of thumb” should no longer be used, because it “led to ignoring of safety issues when the crash rate was below 1.0”.  In other words, a figure of 2.91 MEV, under current standards, is even worse than when the “old rule of thumb” was applied.

For an amusing comparison, here’s the 2009-2013 statistics for a major signalized intersection in the state.

K A B C O Total Crashes Total Injury Crashes Total Injuries
0 0 3 18 25 46 21 26

What is this mystery intersection?  Hint: It’s in Hillsboro.

185th-evergreen

185th and Evergreen: statistically safer than Springfield’s dual-lane roundabout, and it’s not even close.

It’s 185th Ave and Evergreen Pkwy.  Despite the fact that the segment of 185th north of the intersection has a traffic volume of more than 54,000 AADT–2.5 times the most traveled approach of the Springfield roundabout–there were only 46 accidents there during the same time period, the most severe of which were Class B, and there were less than half as many of them.  The actual data sheet is here, if you want to suspend your disbelief.

Quite simply, Springfield’s Pioneer/Hayden Bridge roundabout, in every sense of the term, a demolition derby.  And it’s demolition derby that came with a nearly $10 million price tag, to boot.  Anyone who would dare recommend multi-lane roundabouts based off the data from Springfield and Astoria is, to be blunt, simply delusional.  I still believe that the proper solution for this corridor is, at least in the interim, signalize the Verboort/Purdin and David Hill intersections with Highway 47, to address the immediate, pressing safety concerns.  This will prevent another heartbreaking tragedy, while all the stakeholders–ODOT, the county, and the cities of Forest Grove and Banks–to identify a long-term solution that will address safety and capacity issues, and dovetail with our area’s needs for more east-west connectivity.  For the amount of money that the roundabouts are likely to cost, ODOT could save up and build a proper interchange for this vital corridor.

I urge everyone in Forest Grove and the surrounding area to attend the open house this coming Thursday night.  Tell Washington County’s representatives about the alarming stats in Astoria and Springfield, and that you want to see a real solution, not an expensive and risky halfhearted attempt at one.

-Alexander

Nov 21

The election may be over, but the fight for Forest Grove is not

First of all, I would like to thank each and every one of the 1,758 residents of Forest Grove (per last count) who cast their votes for me in the city council election earlier this month.  I am truly humbled and appreciative of your support.  While I may not have been successful in winning a seat on the council this November, I am very heartened to see so many people here who share the same concerns about where our city is headed.  And in my capacity as a private citizen, I plan to continue to fight for this cause.

Signage2-800px

In the short term, I plan to keep advocating for one of the key planks of my platform–ensuring that Forest Grove doesn’t simply become a cash cow for residential developers from Lake Oswego and West Linn, compromising everything that has made this city a great place to live.  In the candidate forums, I spoke out against two such developments that were in the pipeline, Silverstone and Gales Creek Terrace, which, combined, will increase Forest Grove’s population by about 1,100, and throw our city’s zoning balance even further askew.  While Silverstone was approved shortly before the election, Gales Creek Terrace is currently being appealed to the city council, who will be voting on whether or not to approve the development at their next meeting.

As I’ve said during the campaign, we’ve had an unfortunate history in this area, of approving large residential developments without adequate infrastructure.  Gales Creek Terrace, in its most recent incarnation, will cram 197 units into a relatively small area south of the twin Tom McCall Upper Elementary Schools, including “skinny houses” on lots with as little as 26-foot frontage.  And it’s being developed by the same trio of developers who are responsible for Casey Meadows off 26th Avenue.  If you’ve driven down 26th since that development went in there, you’ve seen firsthand what it looks like to have a large residential development without proper transportation infrastructure.

Part of the planned infrastructure for Gales Creek Terrace is a plan for an arterial-grade extension of 19th Avenue, destined to meet with Pacific Avenue and E Street as an extension of the one-way couplet, as per the city’s Transportation System Plan.  You can see the outline of it here on this map.

galescreekterrace-map-with19th

Portion of Gales Creek Terrace plans, facing west. You can see the faint dashed outline of the proposed (and unbuildable) 19th Ave extension in the lower left corner (click to enlarge).

The problem, however, is that extension runs through the properties of two long-time Forest Grove families, who care about this city and have no plans to sell anytime soon.  Suffice to say, this proposed road would probably not be built for several decades, if at all.  That’s to say nothing of the fact that most of the park areas in the development runs right next to the floodplain, includes a bike path (a portion of the “Emerald Necklace”) that would give riders a view of skinny houses, and narrow streets that hamper emergency vehicles.  Gales Creek Terrace is a badly-designed proposal that will not produce a good situation for Forest Grove residents, new or old.  The planning commission was right to deny it in August.

Before the council votes on the developer’s appeal of the planning commission’s denial, they will be taking more public comment on the development at this meeting, which will take place on Monday, November 24th at 7pm at the Forest Grove City Auditorium (1915 Main Street).  I will be there, speaking in opposition to Gales Creek Terrace, and I urge you to do the same, especially as my inside sources have indicated that a majority of council members currently plan on voting in favor of the development.  As the November 24th meeting happens to coincide with a changing of the guard–Councilor Camille Miller leaving the council and Councilor Malynda Wenzl being sworn in–there will only be 6 votes cast.  As a majority is required to approve the development, a 3-3 tie is sufficient to kill Gales Creek Terrace.

If you are unable to make it to the meeting on Monday night, it is possible to submit written comments, which should be submitted to City Recorder Anna Ruggles (aruggles@forestgrove-or.gov) by 5pm on Monday.

As far as the longer term, I own the domain name for this site for 2 years, and as it essentially costs me nothing to host (it’s on the same server as my music site), it will remain up, though it will be reformatted to some degree.  I am currently planning to transition it from a campaign site to a traditional blog, where I will continue to provide hard-hitting commentary about the issues facing Forest Grove and Washington County, in much the same fashion as the policy essays I’ve written during the campaign.  I want to continue to spark debate and foster serious discussion of the issues, to increase citizen participation, to keep local governments accountable, and leave no stone unturned.

I hope you will all continue to stop by here to read about and discuss the issues affecting our community.  And again, if you share my concerns about Gales Creek Terrace, I hope you’ll come to the council meeting on Monday at 7pm, or send in your comments.  Thank you again for your support this election–while it may be over, the fight for our city is not, and I hope you’ll join me in this cause.

-Alexander

 

 

 

 

Oct 21

Keeping Forest Grove from Becoming Hillsboro (or Bethany)

Note: This post was originally written during my run for Forest Grove City Council during the 2014 General Election.

One of my biggest concerns about Forest Grove’s future is that we are currently on a trajectory of no return, toward bedroom community status.  I’ve used that phrase “bedroom community” quite a lot in this campaign–I probably said it about 5000 times when I met with one local reporter back in September.  It’s hit a nerve, and I’m glad that we are having this discussion as a community now.

Some residents have already raised the white flag of surrender–one I talked to while getting signatures for my petition to get on the ballot for city council remarked, “Forest Grove has always just been the college and nursing homes.  I don’t know what you expect to change.”  As a born-and-raised resident, I know that that’s not always been the case.  Any Forest Grove resident who cares about this city should bristle at that statement.  But if we continue down this road, and believe there’s nothing we can do to prevent developers–primarily from Lake Oswego–from using our city as a vehicle to profit off of skinny houses, then we will lose something special.  According to the Wikipedia article on Forest Grove, we already are “primarily a bedroom suburb of Portland”.  That said, we’re at a critical juncture in the life of our city, and we can still act to save it before it’s too late.  That’s a large part of the reason I’m running for Forest Grove City Council.

The rallying cry I’ve heard from many residents is that we “don’t want to become Hillsboro”.  This account of the latest Planning Commission meeting about the 204-unit Silverstone development underscores this point.  Hillsboro, while afflicted with heavy congestion and increasingly dense development, at least has jobs and retail.  If we don’t change course, we’re merely going to be taking in the congestion and density without jobs and retail, and that will have a very negative effect on our quality of life here.  In actuality, the likely scenario, if the current patterns continue, is that Forest Grove is going to look much more like Bethany.

I’ve already broken down some of the sobering statistics of Forest Grove compared to other cities in the region about our dismal commercial situation.  Our city has the “not-so-golden ratio” of 1 grocery store per 22,419 residents, 3 times the next highest ratio (1 grocery store per 7,196 residents in Beaverton).  There’s plenty of other basic retail needs that our city does not have.

  • Want to buy a computer in Forest Grove?  Sorry, you can’t.  That’s right, in a town of 22,419 residents, in the year 2014, in the midst of the Silicon Forest, there is no place to buy a computer.  Our last computer store in town, Woodchuck Computers, went out of business several years ago. If you want that new laptop, you’re going to have to drive to Hillsboro.
  • What about office supplies?  Our last office supply store, the locally-owned Horton’s, sadly closed down a few years back.  The only office supplies in town are on a couple aisles in Bi-Mart.  Right now, if I need to get some more of the 11×17 paper I use for my music scores (a relatively standard size in the paper world), I have to go to Office Depot–in Hillsboro.
  • How about clothing?  Forest Grove had a JC Penney as late as the 1990s, which occupied the space at Pacific and Douglas that now houses a Tuality Physical Therapy office.  There’s limited clothing at Bi-Mart, sportswear at Frye’s, and a couple small resale places in town, but if you’re looking to buy a suit, that’s a trip to–you guessed it–Hillsboro.

The idea that a city our size, in 2014, cannot support the types of businesses I’ve outlined above strikes me as absurd, and yet, somehow, we are completely lacking in those areas.  I believe that part of our ineffectiveness in attracting more commercial and industrial development stems with a number of long-term issues.  There’s the matter of our road network–it’s difficult to reach Forest Grove from other places in Washington County (and vice-versa), due to our tangled road network.  Comparably-sized cities like Newberg and McMinnville have the benefit of Highway 99W, and they are “on the way” to other destinations, whereas we lie at the end of perennially-congested Highway 8 and a bunch of circuitous rural roads, and haven’t really been “on the way” anywhere since Highway 6 was routed onto its current alignment in 1957.*  I’ve already discussed in the “not-so-golden ratio” post that Forest Grove’s planners in the 1990s inexplicably thought we had too much commercial zoning in the city.  Right now, Chapter 10, Article 3 of the city code only mentions two types of commercial zones outside the designated Town Center area, “Neighborhood Commercial” (NC) and “Community Commercial” (CC).  Other parts of the planning documentation mention the possibility of Commercial Planned Development (CPD).

NC zones have a 2,000 sq. ft. limit, unless a conditional use permit is acquired, and CC zones west of Oak Street have setback requirements and the provision of promoting “streetscapes that are consistent with the desired character”.  This could pose some additional difficulties to someone trying to develop commercial businesses at the north end of the city, where we stand the best chance of attracting that needed type of development, curbing our “retail leakage” to Hillsboro in the process. A proper grocery store–even a specialty one–is going to need proper parking, and that’s going to mean a larger setback.  Finally, I believe that some commercial developers might still think, as Haggen ultimately concluded, that we “don’t fit their market”.  I don’t think the city’s original desired goal for the Times Litho property–attracting New Seasons Market or the like–was really feasible in light of this.

And while we seem to be unable to attract the kinds of commercial development we need, and some aspects of the way the city has handled commercial zoning over the years may be hampering that, we seem to have become a doormat for residential developers.  Our inclusion in the boundaries of Metro has exacerbated the issues here.  The situation with the high-density residential developments at the east end of 26th Avenue is an example of what we should strenuously avoid going forward.  That development was clearly built without the proper roadway infrastructure to support it, and both the existing and new residents in that part of town are paying the price.  Residents who were recently brought into the city through island annexation are especially feeling the pain.

caseymeadows

“Skinny houses” in Casey Meadows subdivision, a high-density residential development built without proper roadway infrastructure. The lack of infrastructure created a mess for both existing residents and skinny house dwellers alike, on 26th Avenue.

One of the two developers involved in that area is also involved with the controversial Gales Creek Terrace development, located west of D Street and south of Pacific Avenue. Gales Creek Terrace is itself built on a questionable understanding of traffic patterns.  It relies on the promise of a new 19th Ave extension, built to arterial standards, that will connect to E Street at the existing Pacific/E intersection near the twin Tom McCall Upper Elementary Schools.  However, in order for this extension to be built fully, and fulfill the traffic needs of the development, it would need to cut across two properties owned by long-time city residents, who have no desire to sell, and the confusing 19th Ave/B Street intersection will become even worse in the meanwhile.  The developer’s appeal of the Planning Commission’s previous denial is about to go before the city council.

While some have argued that there’s nothing the city can legally do to curb Forest Grove’s “Bethanification”, there are some steps we can take.  One step would be to amend Chapter 10 of the city code, which covers development standards, to put stronger emphasis on infrastructure needs for residential planned developments and subdivisions.  Currently, the code only says that a traffic study “may be required”.

We also should look at expanding the types of commercial zones available within the city, and rezoning some of the overabundant residential land for commercial use, or perhaps amending the Community Commercial zone description.  The current zoning map shows almost all the new land annexed to the city in the northwestern corner being zoned residential.  While Haggen, the store that backed out of Forest Grove upon determining that our city didn’t fit their market profile, is no longer in position to expand, I believe that similar retail businesses–including the New Seasons that city leaders have longed for–would potentially be attracted to this area (it would be difficult to exclude Forest Gale Heights from a market study there, as Haggen did with their eastside site), and it would be a draw to residents throughout western Washington County.  Getting commercial business in this new area of the city–away from Highway 8–would, as a whole, cause businesses to look at the rest of the city as well.

Additionally, there is also the option of enacting a moratorium, that would temporarily suspend the development process.  Development moratoria are allowed under ORS 197.520.  The process of enacting such a moratorium does require the involvement of the state Department of Land Conservation and Development, as well as public hearings.  There are also time limits on how long such a moratorium may last.  Deschutes County has previously enacted a moratorium on residential development, and Bend and Hood River have entertained moratoria recently.  While this is a more drastic option, with some of the things that have been happening with development here, and countywide, it is an option that I believe should be on the table, as long as the city pursues it with a careful eye toward the Oregon Revised Statutes.

If we want Forest Grove to continue to be a small town with a high quality of life, we need to make changes to our method of dealing with development, before we end up like Bethany.

-Alexander

*Before 1957, Oregon Highway 6 was actually routed along present-day Oregon Highway 8, and extended from Tillamook all the way to downtown Portland, passing through Forest Grove, rather than going through Banks.  And before 1939, it existed as part of the now-decommissioned Oregon Highway 2, which similarly existed as a coast-to-Portland route that went through Forest Grove.  Highway 2’s final alignment, before it was decommissioned, corresponded with modern-day US Highway 26.

Oct 14

Thoughts on Highway 47 – Part Two

Note as of 12/4/2014: This post was originally written during my run for Forest Grove City Council during the 2014 General Election.  It does, however, cover currently active developments with Highway 47.

Thoughts on Highway 47 – Part Two

Part Two of my policy essay series on Highway 47 will focus on my stance with respect to the current plans for improvements, and my take on what should actually be done. To briefly summarize my points from Part One:

  • The real safety issue with the two “flashpoints” of the Highway 47 situation are the intersections with Verboort/Purdin Roads to the north, and Fern Hill Road/Maple Street to the south. The main problems at these intersections is for traffic on the crossroads to determine when it is safe to cross or turn onto Highway 47.
  • The lack of east-west connectivity in Forest Grove poses issues, many of which are interlaced with the systemic problems with Highway 47. Verboort Road and Fern Hill Road form segments of the circuitous east-west routes that many Forest Grove residents use to get to other parts of Washington County, or as alternatives to Highway 8.
  • ODOT’s attempts to fix the Verboort/Purdin intersection in the past decade were “token” efforts that proved largely ineffective, and possibly even detrimental to safety at that location, because they focused on the wrong problem.

Current State and County Plans

Now, as to ODOT’s plans, currently, there are no real plans for the Fern Hill/Maple intersection, though on September 29th, they announced plans to do a “safety audit” in that area. The funds for the audit have not yet been located, and there is no timeline on when this audit will take place.

The Verboort/Purdin intersection on the north end, however, is a different story. In the wake of the 2007 tragedy there, ODOT studied the intersection and came to the conclusion that the best solution was to convert it into a multi-lane roundabout, a project for which they did not have the funding. Friends of the victim’s family had offered to chip in for the full cost of a traffic signal there, a solution that would have solved the main issue of determining when it is safe to cross the intersection from Verboort and Purdin, but ODOT turned them down. Reportedly, they never gave the family a direct explanation for the refusal, though as I noted in Part One, ODOT representatives have made public remarks to the effect that motorists would simply “ignore red lights”, should a signal be installed at that location.

After the April 2014 collision that killed two Pacific University students, ODOT agreed to hold a town hall meeting about the intersection in May, at the behest of Mayor Pete Truax, and in conjunction with Washington County’s Department of Land Use and Transportation (LUT), and Senators Bruce Starr and Betsy Johnson, to discuss the future of the northern segment of the highway. I was at that town hall, and the positive response I received from some city officials, about the comments and questions I posed to the ODOT and LUT representatives, was one of the things that truly convinced me to enter the council race this year.

The plan that the ODOT representatives detailed at the town hall involved expediting the roundabout plans, by getting $750,000 funding in place as soon as possible to cover the engineering costs. They also announced that they planned to work with Washington County LUT to coordinate efforts with the David Hill Road extension, which was also to be accelerated from its original 2018 completion timeline, due to the fact that that road would intersect Highway 47, between Verboort/Purdin and the Sunset Drive/Beal Road intersection. They also announced the latest batch of “token” fixes (the 45mph zone, and the Through-Route Activated Warning Sign system) that I discussed in Part One. In June 2014, ODOT announced that they planned to have Washington County LUT and engineering consultant firm CH2M Hill (the same group responsible for the earlier Verboort roundabouts) handle initial phases of engineering. Construction is currently scheduled for the latter part of 2015.

Are Roundabouts Appropriate for Highway 47?

You may notice the plural—roundabouts—on the above heading. Washington County LUT Director Andrew Singleakis remarked at the town hall meeting in April that the likely treatment for the new David Hill Road intersection with Highway 47 would be a traffic signal. However, since that time, LUT has been quiet about the plans, but all information suggests that they are now considering installing a second roundabout on Highway 47, at this new intersection. Per page 36 of the September 15, 2014 agenda packet for the Forest Grove Planning Commission, which discusses the Silverstone subdivision planned for the immediate vicinity (a subdivision I oppose, by the way), city planning staff note that “[r]oundabouts are proposed for both [David Hill and Verboort/Purdin] intersections”. ODOT’s information page for the Verboort/Purdin intersection also notes that they plan to “[e]valuate the two other nearby OR 47 intersections”, referring not only to the future David Hill connection, but the existing signalized Sunset/Beal intersection. Based on the trajectory of the Verboort/Purdin and David Hill plans, it would not be a stretch to speculate that this short stretch of highway could be the site of as many as three roundabouts, by the time ODOT, LUT and CH2M Hill get done.

A number of city residents with whom I’ve discussed the situation, even those who have expressed that they are fine with the existing county-built Verboort Road roundabouts from 2003, are concerned by the prospect of even a single roundabout at the Highway 47/Verboort/Purdin intersection. Their trepidation stems from a feeling that roundabouts do not belong on a high-volume rural state highway. While some residents and officials are simply happy that the state is finally doing something at that intersection, the general impression that I have gotten is that many Forest Grove (and Banks) residents would prefer a signal over a roundabout at this intersection. With the types of changes already made at the intersection as part of ODOT’s 2005 turn lane project, almost all the preliminary work required for a proper signalized intersection is already in place, and the average signal, per ODOT’s signal brochure, costs between $300,000 and $500,000—at most, only two-thirds of the cost of merely designing the roundabout, to speak nothing of building it.

As far as the full costs through the construction phase, ODOT has thrown out a figure of $3,000,000-$5,000,000 figure, but per the project page, this figure is apparently only for a single-lane roundabout, rather than the two-lane setup the agency is actually leaning toward building. Per ODOT’s page, the two-lane design would “significantly impact the final footprint of the project” and “could increase the cost by 30 to 50%”. In other words, it could potentially cost as much as $7.5 million for that single roundabout—a whopping 15 to 25 times the average cost of signalization. The electricity and maintenance savings that many roundabout proponents cite is in fact minimal. Again referring to ODOT’s signal brochure, those costs typically run in the range of $4,000 per year. Even assuming the most favorable figures for the roundabout cost—the more favorable $500,000 signalization versus a $3 million roundabout—the savings will not be recouped until the year 2640.

However, this is not the only glaring problem with putting roundabouts on Highway 47. While there are a number of existing policy studies out there which show very positive safety records for yield-controlled “modern” roundabouts, including the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s continued studies, my own preliminary investigation shows a strikingly different picture.

First, to lay bare the most essential claim made by roundabout proponents, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report suggests that intersections “converted from traffic signals or stop signs to roundabouts have found reductions in injury crashes of 72-80 percent and reductions in all crashes of 35-47 percent”. Citing Isebrands and Hallmark (2012), which studied “19 higher-speed rural intersections (speed limits of 40 mph or higher) that originally had stop signs on the minor approaches and were converted to roundabouts”, they “found a 62 percent reduction in all crashes and a 85 percent reduction in injury crashes.” The lower speeds, both in approach and in the circular roadway itself, along with the reduced number of conflict points, are the most oft-cited factors.

In Oregon, the most commonly used metric for representing the severity of traffic accidents is the “KABCO” system, described on p. 22 of the PDF version of the state’s Highway Safety Investigation Manual, which ODOT uses for their statistics. Their ways of notating each severity level in the KABCO system differs depending on the type of report, but the below chart breaks this down:

 

Code Short Description Long Description
K Fatal injury
A Incapacitating Injury/Major Injury “Prevents person from walking, includes severe lacerations, broken limbs, abdominal injuries.”
B Non-Incapacitating Evident Injury/Moderate Injury “Evident to observers, lump on head, bruises, cuts.”
C Possible Injury/Minor Injury “Limping, momentary unconsciousness.”
O No Injury/Property Damage Only (sometimes also referred to by the acronym “PDO”)

Now, let’s take a look at some statistics. The roundabout for which the most extensive data exists is the one at the base of the Youngs Bay Bridge in Astoria, where US Highway 101 meets Oregon Highway 202. This roundabout opened in October 2002, and features two travel lanes around most of its circumference.

Astoria Roundabout

Roundabout at US Highway 101 and Oregon Highway 202 in Astoria, Oregon

The highest approach speed is a mere 35mph, from the Highway 202 leg, while the Highway 101 legs have a posted speed of 30mph. Being an intersection between two state highways, I was able to obtain crash data back to the 1990s, including a before period of October 1993-September 2002, and an equal after period of October 2002-September 2011. Here’s the KABCO breakdown:

 

Period K A B C O Total Crashes Total Injury Crashes Total Injuries Truck Involved
10/1/1993-09/30/2002 (Before) 0 1 4 5 15 24 8 10 2
10/1/2002-09/30/2011 (After) 0 1 3 19 16 58 18 23 11

As you can see, rather than the 35-47% reduction in crashes one would expect from reading the studies, for an intersection in an urban setting, the total number of crashes appears to have jumped from 24 before to 58 after, meaning an increase of 142%. Even more problematic, the number of injury crashes has not decreased by 72-80%, but has instead increased by 125% , from 8 to 18. The number of injuries sustained in those crashes also increased, from 10 to 23 (130% increase), and the severity of those injuries did not go down. The majority of accidents pre-roundabout were property damage only, while injury accidents are the majority post-roundabout. We still see a single Class A injury both before and after the roundabout installation. Class B injuries dropped insignificantly (4 to 3), and Class C increased sharply (5 to 19).

My data, taken from ODOT’s online Crash Data System, can be acquired here:

Astoria-PreRoundabout-KABCO

Astoria-PreRoundabout-Comp

Astoria-Roundabout-TruckIncluded

Astoria-Roundabout-KABCO

Astoria-Roundabout-Comp

Astoria-PreRoundabout-TruckIncluded

The traffic volume during the entire period remained steady, with the segments of Highway 101 around the intersection remaining somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000 Annual Average Daily Trips (AADT), sometimes spiking a little bit higher. The two sample points ODOT used near the intersection include a point at Milepost (MP) 4.97, on the bridge south of the intersection, while the north sample point was located at MP 4.09 pre-2005, and at MP 4.27 from 2005 onward. Based on ODOT data, including reference of their Digital Video Log, my sample points for the pre-roundabout Y-intersection were from MP 4.2 to 4.36, while for the roundabout period, I adjusted down to MP 4.3 to 4.35, due to the different footprint of the intersection.  Because of the relatively low fluctuation in traffic volume, it is clear from this data that the “per million vehicles” rate that many engineers use as a standard has gone up post-roundabout.

It is also worth noting that the number of incidents involving trucks at the Highway 101/202 intersection in Astoria increased from by a factor of 5.5 after the roundabout was built, increasing from just 2 in the previous 10 years, to 11 in the aftermath. At the town hall meeting, ODOT Region 2 Manager Sonny Chickering noted that truck drivers were not happy with the Astoria roundabout, and it’s easy to see why. Highway 47 is in fact a lifeline for our freight access to the outside world, and there has been repeated issues with truck rollovers in the existing Verboort roundabouts. Chickering did also comment that the truckers had said they would not oppose the proposed Highway 47/Verboort/Purdin roundabout, due to the recent fatalities at that site.

That, however, was before Washington County LUT had sneaked in a plan to install a second roundabout at the new David Hill intersection, and, along with ODOT, indicated that they were “studying” the Sunset/Beal intersection. In the question I posed to Chickering at the town hall, I also noted the fact that for a few years following the installation of the Verboort roundabouts, traffic volumes increased sharply on Highway 47, indicating a pattern of motorists avoiding the roundabouts. If the truckers decide to avoid the northern portion of Highway 47 to reach Forest Grove, to bypass the roundabouts, where are they going to go?

In studying the accident records of many other roundabouts across the state, while some do in fact appear to have solid safety records as advertised, one trend I also noticed was that a number of them have had Class A injury accidents within the past five years. Among these is the roundabout that was completed at Scholls Ferry Road and River Road by Washington County in mid-June 2012, which saw such an incident just a little over two weeks after opening. With the exception of the Class A injury in the Astoria roundabout, the vast majority of these major injuries have involved motorcycles. Even with the roundabout at Meinecke Parkway and Dewey Drive in Sherwood—both roads with 25mph speeds—we see one of these severe motorcycle accidents.

There are places where roundabouts are a suitable and effective intersection treatment, but given the history of the Astoria roundabout, I have serious reservations about installing one—let alone two or more—on a high-volume, high-speed state highway, especially given the cost. What I would personally advocate for would be to signalize the Verboort/Purdin and David Hill intersections, as an interim measure to immediately improve safety. Washington County LUT has actually installed three new rural traffic signals in the southern part of the county this summer, at the intersections between Scholls Ferry and Tile Flat Roads, Roy Rogers and Beef Bend Roads, and Roy Rogers and Scholls-Sherwood Roads. The Highway 47 intersections in question are very comparable to these intersections.

In the long term, however, we need to figure out just what our road network in Forest Grove and vicinity needs to look like. While the term “urban highway” has been thrown about quite a bit, I don’t believe Forest Grove needs Highway 47 to turn into another Highway 8. We need a highway that can safely sustain higher speeds, allowing for mobility in and out of Forest Grove. Business and industry that would otherwise consider our city see us as being difficult to reach, and out of the way.  It’s because our road network is so poorly connected with the rest of the region, and does not reflect current travel patterns. Especially given the fact that ODOT and Washington County seem to be willing to spend a considerable chunk of change on the problematic multi-roundabout solution, it is possible they may be up for reallocating this funding toward a real solution, such as a modest interchange, which, as the city grows, is going to be a better long-term investment than expensive roundabouts that may need to be torn out. Where that improvement would be situated is something that would need to be examined, and coordinated with efforts to improve our severely lacking east-west connectivity, such as the proposed Evergreen Road extension, which I believe should be a top priority for western Washington County.

In summary, here is my stance with respect to Highway 47:

  • Roundabouts—especially two or more of them—are not viable solutions. The Astoria roundabout statistics seem to show a significant downside of putting multi-lane roundabouts on high-volume freight routes like Highway 47.
  • The Verboort/Purdin and future David Hill intersections should be signalized in the interim, as should the Fern Hill/Maple intersection on the south end, while a more comprehensive solution is determined.
  • That comprehensive solution for the highway needs to prioritize both mobility and safety, and needs to tie in with plans for improved east-west connectivity, making Forest Grove easier to reach from the rest of the region, and increasing our shot at becoming something more than a moribund bedroom community.

-Alexander

Oct 01

Thoughts on Highway 47 – Part One

Note as of 12/4/2014: This post was originally written during my run for Forest Grove City Council during the 2014 General Election.  It does, however, cover currently active developments with Highway 47.

The situation with Oregon Highway 47 is one of the two major transportation issues facing Forest Grove, along with our severe lack of east-west connectivity. The current “flashpoints” of this particular stretch of road are the intersection with Verboort and Purdin Roads, just north of the city, and the intersection with Fern Hill Road and Maple Street on the south end of the city. Both intersections have had safety issues for a number of years, and the recent tragedy at Verboort/Purdin serves an unfortunate reminder of this.

With continued growth in Forest Grove, especially on the north side, we will be faced with increasing conflict between regional mobility and local access on this critical highway. Consequently, some community leaders and city officials have commented to the effect that Highway 47 is transitioning toward becoming an “urban highway”, and the matter of what to do with the highway is currently being contested by the city, Washington County, and ODOT. Additionally, as I will show in this policy post, this matter is actually very interconnected with our startling lack of east-west arterials, as Verboort Road and Fern Hill Road actually serve as segments of alternative routes to our single east-west arterial, the perennially-congested Oregon Highway 8.

As has been well-documented in the media, the city has been fighting to get a signal at the south “flashpoint”, the Fern Hill/Maple intersection. This intersection is the main point of access to Fern Hill Wetlands, an increasingly popular nature park, and per the city’s comprehensive plan, the Taylor Way Area, right near that intersection, is presently planned for future industrial development. Additionally, for many Forest Grove residents like myself, who presently have to commute to or through the southeastern parts of Washington County that aren’t easily accessible from here (i.e. southern Beaverton, Tigard, etc.), Fern Hill Road is increasingly used as one leg of that journey, as shown on the map below.

A route some take to reach South Beaverton, Tigard, and vicinity from Forest Grove, of which Fern Hill Road forms the first leg. (click to enlarge)

This situation is effectively déjà vu of the Sunset/Beal intersection on Highway 47, shortly after the northern bypass opened in 2000. The intersection, at that time, was simply a two-way stop, just like Verboort/Purdin and Fern Hill/Maple are now, and it had an even worse safety record during the short time it existed with that configuration. ODOT drug their feet in installing the signal, despite the accident toll mounting, and regular urging from the city and county. In the case of the Fern Hill/Maple intersection, the city was told that the speed limit was too high for the intersection to be signalized (despite the fact that there are plenty of other signals on state highways with 55mph speed limits, which have improved safety). Subsequently, the city’s recent appeal to the state Speed Zoning Board to get the supposedly necessary speed limit reduction was denied.

My personal take with this situation is that the city went a bit too far with their proposed reductions, by extending the 45mph zone all the way to Elm, and having a 50mph zone between Elm and B. Things like reducing speed limits in violation of ODOT’s authority under ORS 810.180 and 811.111—including the widely-derided attempt to lower a stretch of Pacific Avenue to 20mph in 2010 (an attempt in which many current city councilors played a role)—likely did not endear our city to ODOT’s speed zoning personnel.

Personally, I support the idea of installing a signal here, at least in the short term (I’ll have more on the long term in a subsequent policy post), but oppose the speed limit reduction, for reasons I will explain in the next part of this policy essay.

Relating to the subject of speed, that brings us to the north end, at the Verboort/Purdin intersection. I still remember, as a young newspaper delivery boy in April 1997, when Scott Thunem, whose family was a customer along my route, was killed at this intersection, trying to make that dreaded left turn off Verboort and onto Highway 47 southbound—the same exact turn that everyone killed at that intersection has made. In the 17 years since that accident, all ODOT has done to that intersection is “token” fixes that have, in many cases, actually made the intersection worse, and I believe that the plans they currently have will only continue this trend.  To conclude this write-up, I will detail the changes ODOT has made thus far, and how they’ve actually contributed to the problem.

1) Widening Highway 47 to Add Turn Lanes (2005)

In 2005, owing to the fact that crash data showed that the accidents at the Verboort/Purdin intersection involved turning motions, ODOT completed a project which widened Highway 47 to add turn lanes. The highway received left and right turn lanes onto Verboort/Purdin in both directions, and Verboort and Purdin received channelized right-turn lanes onto Highway 47. The issue here, which is really symptomatic of ODOT’s mishandling of this intersection, is that they dealt with the wrong turning motions. As I mentioned before, every fatality at the intersection since 1997 has involved a vehicle turning left off Verboort.

The addition of the turn lanes greatly exacerbated the issue, by making it harder for traffic entering from the Verboort and Purdin approaches to see if there is through traffic on Highway 47. In particular, most of the turning traffic off Highway 47 is drivers coming from Forest Grove making a right turn onto Verboort. There is often such a steady stream of it that it conceals the faster through traffic that is headed northbound, creating a blind spot. A lesser blind spot exists with traffic coming from Banks, turning left onto Verboort.

Furthermore, in the process of widening the highway, ODOT removed all the illumination at the intersection and, inexplicably, didn’t replace it until after the 2007 accident that resulted in the death of 16-year-old Kaylee Tawzer of Banks.

2) Speed Limit Reductions (2007, 2014)

Following the 2007 fatal accident, in addition to the long-overdue illumination replacement, ODOT decided to make a couple of token “fixes”, including putting a flashing light on the “+”-intersection signs before the intersection (despite an ODOT project engineer claiming that replacing the overhead flashing beacon that existed before the 2005 widening “really doesn’t make a difference”), and reduced the speed limit on the entire stretch from Verboort/Purdin to the Porter Road/Oak Street intersection from 55mph to 50mph. The theory, of course, was that if a motorist coming off the Verboort/Purdin approaches got caught by the aforementioned blind spot, caused by the turn lane project, that there might be slightly less chance of another fatality in the resultant collision, due to Newton’s laws of motion.

Obviously, the accident this past spring, which unfortunately claimed the lives of Pacific University freshmen Kiden Dilla and Ayan Osman, showed that this was not the case.  ODOT did the same thing over, dropping the limit on a short stretch by the intersection even further, from 50mph to 45mph.

45 mph sign placement with worker

Getting it wrong once again (photo by ODOT)

As someone who uses this intersection several times per week—as many Forest Grove residents do—I’ve personally felt less safe at the intersection with each subsequent speed reduction. Coincidentally, the reason for this is actually the same reason ODOT won’t reduce the speed limit on the south end of Highway 47.

It’s been a “best practice” in highway engineering for many years to set speed limits on roads to correspond to the 85th-percentile speed, the speed at which 85% of traffic travels at or below, rounded to the nearest 5mph increment1—for all intents and purposes, the general speed of traffic. This particular figure has been determined by many years of research to strike the perfect balance, by reducing the amount of speed variance amongst motorists, ensuring very high compliance, and minimizing potential for speed traps.

This practice is used by most transportation departments in the United States, including ODOT, albeit there are cases where safety records, pace speed data, and other factors (including political pressure) may lead to a speed limit lower than that ideal 85th-percentile. Per page 10 of the powerpoint presentation ODOT did in the wake of the 2007 accident, the actual 85th-percentile speed of traffic on Highway 47 at the time was 63mph for northbound traffic, and 62mph for southbound traffic.  The original speed limit, 55mph (which is currently the maximum allowed by state law on non-Interstates, per ORS 811.111), appears to lie at about the 65th-percentile on the graph.  50mph is at about the 20th-percentile, while no vehicles were traveling at a speed below 47mph.  I’ve extracted the graph, which can be seen below.2

ODOT 2007 Speed Investigation Graph for Highway 47 at the Verboort/Purdin intersection

ODOT 2007 Speed Investigation Graph for Highway 47 at the Verboort/Purdin intersection

Provided compliance with the prevailing speed limit, the reductions ODOT made would theoretically reduce the force of the impact in a collision, but by getting farther and farther away from that ideal 85th-percentile speed, it increases the variance in travel speed. If the 85th-percentile speed is 63mph in a 55mph zone, the difference between someone going the speed limit and someone going the 85th-percentile is 8mph. Drop that speed limit to 45mph, and now you are looking at a 18mph differential. With such a variability, it becomes more difficult to determine the closing rate, and thus, whether or not it’s safe to enter the intersection.

With the reduced visibility created by the widening project, and the increased variability of travel speeds along the highway, creating a situation in which it is more difficult to determine when its safe to enter, these “fixes” have actually made the Verboort/Purdin intersection more dangerous.

3) Warning Signs

Finally, the most recent “improvement” at the Verboort/Purdin intersection has been the installation of rumble strips and four new “Through-Route Activated Warning Signs” (TRAWS) on Highway 47, just before the intersection in either direction. They appear as shown below (photo from ODOT):

warning sign on OR 47

ODOT’s Through-Route Activated Warning Sign System  (photo from ODOT)

The signs are activated when a vehicle coming from Verboort or Purdin approaches the intersection, which subsequently trips a loop detector, causing the beacons on the TRAWS to begin flashing. The problem with the TRAWS, however, is that yet again, ODOT is addressing the wrong problem. The problems are with the Verboort/Purdin approaches, not the Highway 47 approaches. Furthermore, with the high traffic volumes and queuing that regularly results at the stop signs on Verboort and Purdin, the beacons are almost constantly flashing, completely blunting their effectiveness. ODOT spokespeople, including Steve Harry in 2007, have previously claimed that people would “ignore red lights” should a full traffic signal be installed. Which begs the question: what makes them think motorists will pay more attention to the TRAWS devices, especially considering the issues I have highlighted with that system?

Slowing down traffic on Highway 47 won’t solve the problem of cross-traffic misjudging when it is safe to go.  Increased speed differentials for highway traffic actually make the judgement call that much harder, and unless the decision making process is simplified, these types of collisions will continue to happen, especially as traffic volumes increase.

As you can tell by my tone–a tone that I will carry over to subsequent parts of this policy essay series–I am quite critical of ODOT, as I don’t believe they understand Forest Grove’s traffic patterns.  I’ve heard the same concern echoed by many Forest Grove residents with whom I’ve talked.  As any Oregonian should, I want ODOT to succeed and be the best state DOT in the nation.  But even with the funding challenges and other issues they face, their handling of Highway 47 has been downright schizoid, and they’ve been headed down the wrong path on this stretch of road for at least a decade.

In order to right the situation, we need someone on the city council who can speak the language of ODOT and Washington County LUT, in order to get them onto the same page, and make Highway 47 and other vital roadway corridors into high-quality roads that truly serve our needs.  How many current city councilors or council candidates can give a cogent summary of the 85th-percentile rule?  That level of understanding and attention to detail with technical matters is what I hope to bring to the city council.

In the next policy post, I will detail my thoughts about what ODOT and Washington County currently plan to do with the northern segment of Highway 47, around the Verboort/Purdin intersection, my thoughts on the long-term plans for both the north and south segments, and some surprising findings about intersection safety records.

-Alexander

 

1 Depending on the policy of the authority setting the speed limits, and other factors pertaining to the nature of the road, sometimes the posted speed will be rounded to the nearest 5mph, and in other cases, the standing practice is to round it upward to the next 5mph increment.

2 As you might notice in this diagram, ODOT actually lists the highway number as 102, not 47.  That is because ODOT actually uses two separate numbering systems–the route number system (where the 47 designation originates), which corresponds to the signs you see on the road, and the highway number system that ODOT uses for internal purposes (where the number 102 comes from).  It is only with the advent of numbered routes that were first signed after 2002 that the internal highway number will match (Highway 103, the Fishhawk Falls Highway, is such an example).  The actual signed Highway 47 includes portions of three separate “internal” numbered highways: Highway 110 (Clatskanie to Mist), Highway 102 (Mist to Forest Grove), and Highway 29 (Forest Grove to McMinnville).

Sep 16

22,419-to-1: Forest Grove’s Not-So-Golden Ratio

22,419 to 1. What does this figure mean? It’s a rather dubious figure for Forest Grove, which illustrates one of the major issues facing the city. This ratio represents grocery stores per capita within the city. With a population approximately 22,419 residents, per the 2013 estimates of the US Census Bureau, Forest Grove only has a single grocery store: the Safeway at Ballad Towne Square, at the east end of the Pacific Ave/19th Ave couplet. When someone states that Forest Grove is not a full-service city (or, at best, barely qualifies as one), this particular point is often invoked.

Comparisons

I was curious to see what these ratios looked like in other cities in the region, so I spent some time researching other incorporated cities in Washington County, plus cities of comparable population in Yamhill and western Clackamas County. The results of this research underscores just how dismally underserved Forest Grove is with respect to this rather critical retail service. The criteria I used was that in order for a grocery store to be counted for a particular city, it must lie inside the city limits, and it must have a full range of products, including a sizable produce section. Thus, convenience stores (i.e. 7-Eleven, Plaid Pantry) are excluded, but specialty stores like Uwajimaya in Beaverton–which has a produce section–are included.

The data is shown in the table below, ordered from low to high with respect to population per qualifying store. The city of Durham (pop. 1,922) is not included, as there are zero grocery stores within its city limits.

City Population No. of Grocery Stores Population per Store
Gaston 663 1 663
Banks 1,860 1 1,860
North Plains 2,029 1 2,029
King City 3,498 1 3,498
Wilsonville 21,484 6 3,581
Lake Oswego 37,610 8 4,701
Sherwood 18,884 4 4,721
Tigard 50,444 9 5,605
Canby 16,866 3 5,622
Newberg 22,508 4 5,627
Cornelius 12,161 2 6,081
Hillsboro 97,368 16 6,086
West Linn 25,992 4 6,498
McMinnville 33,131 5 6,626
Tualatin 26,879 4 6,720
Beaverton 93,542 13 7,196
Forest Grove 22,419 1 22,419

The only other cities in the study area that have just a single grocery store are Gaston, Banks, North Plains (whose store is quite small), and King City, all of which have a population of less than 3,500, compared to Forest Grove’s 22,419. Forest Grove’s figure is over 3 times the next highest ratio, which belongs to Beaverton (7,196 people per grocery store).

Let’s look at this in visual form, which really highlights Forest Grove’s not-so-golden ratio. Forest Grove is shown in bright red. (click to enlarge)

pop-per-groc-store

Sticks out like a (very long) sore thumb, does it not?

One possible counter-argument that one might level with this research is that Cornelius’ 2 grocery stores (Fred Meyer and Walmart) are close enough by that they act as de facto stores for Forest Grove. That said, even if we include them–in which case, we’d realistically have to include Cornelius’ 12,161 residents in our calculations, giving us a population figure of 34,580–the result would be a ratio of 11,526 people per store, which is still considerably higher than Beaverton’s ratio. Furthermore, if we include stores in close proximity that technically lie in the next town, or in an unincorporated area, we’d similarly have to decrease these other city’s figures, possibly quite substantially. Beaverton’s ratio would be especially affected, with several of the stores along SW Scholls Ferry Road and Barrows Road (which demarcate the boundary between Beaverton and Tigard) would have to be included, as would the Safeway on NW Cornell Road in the Cedar Mill area, which is in unincorporated Washington County, but within throwing distance of the city limits. And Durham, the aforementioned example without a grocery store, lies within walking distance of the Whole Foods in Tualatin. Even if one makes this particular point, it only serves to further underscore the fact that Forest Grove is severely lacking in this department.

History

Forest Grove was not always so underserved in the grocery department. When my family moved back to Forest Grove in 1995, after a few years in Aloha, Forest Grove’s population was only around 14,000, and there were actually two grocery stores here. Up until the early 2000s, the independent Da Boys Market (which still operates in Carlton), had a location at the Forest Grove Center, on Pacific Avenue between Cedar and Douglas Streets, giving Forest Grove a population-to-store ratio comparable to Beaverton’s. The store occupied the space currently filled by 1440 Fitness and a defunct acupuncture/massage clinic, and while it wasn’t a particularly large store, it was conveniently located right next to the university, and it helped round out our commercial base.

Additionally, in the mid-to-late-1990s, both Albertsons and Haggen were interested in opening stores in Forest Grove. Albertson’s was interested in the parcel right at the corner of Pacific Avenue (Highway 8) and Highway 47, while Haggen planned to build just a block to the east, right across from the Rose Grove mobile home park. Both pursued the idea quite seriously, with Albertson’s buying and demolishing several houses on Poplar Street, and as the original Ace Hardware building had been located on the Haggen site, it relocated to the new building right at corner of Pacific and Highway 47 it presently occupies. You can also still see the remnants of the unfinished traffic signal installation on Pacific, between Highway 47 and Mountain View, marking where the driveway would have been, as well as security fencing around the site.

Why did Albertsons and Haggen ultimately back out? Haggen, after all that work, did a bit more market research, and, looking only at the immediate East Forest Grove/West Cornelius area, which tends to be lower-income, decided that the area wasn’t consistent with their market, and gave up on Forest Grove. In the years following, they ended up closing their Tanasbourne and Beaverton stores, leaving only the Tualatin location open. As far as Albertsons go, it ultimately came down to street access, with the city reluctant toward the company’s plan to close Poplar Street, and ODOT wanting to place access restrictions on the intersection with 19th Avenue and Highway 47. Also, curiously, the city at that point thought that it had “too much commercial zoning“, arguably presaging our city’s descent toward “bedroom community” status. We went from being a town of 14,000 that almost had 4 grocery stores (and ratio on par with Wilsonville’s), to a town of 22,419 with just one.

Future

How do we get out of this predicament? That’s a key question I hope to help solve if elected. While the Johnson Reid study that the city commissioned last year (brief synopsis here) suggests that the Times Litho property that the city controversially purchased would be viable for “some level of specialty grocery”, I am skeptical. (I’ll address Times Litho in a later post–in short, I would have been a “no” vote had I been on the council then.) Judging by the situation with the Albertsons and Haggen proposals, and the considerable amount of vacant commercial property along Highway 8, I think our best option is to explore the potential for zoning large commercial parcels on the north side of town, such as along the David Hill Road extension. Forest Grove has had explosive residential growth in this area, some of which is more likely to fit the demographics of a company like New Seasons or Trader Joe’s, which the city has expressed an interest in attracting.

Almost all commercial zoning in Forest Grove is within one block of Highway 8, which, as we continue to grow farther north, is becoming difficult to reach for all these newer residents we’ve added to the city, who are more likely to drive to the north end of Hillsboro to do their shopping. And by locating businesses closer to all this growth, we will be reducing traffic congestion and creating a full-service community. If we convert some of the overabundant residential zoning in this part of Forest Grove over to other uses, we stand a chance of attracting the types of services we currently lack. In turn, this may lead companies and consumers to look at our city in a different light, as a viable place to do business and shop, and not just a lifeless bedroom community.

I’ll be posting more of these policy write-ups in the coming weeks leading up to the election. If you’d like to add your voice to the discussion on this issue, follow the discussion on social media, via my Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/AlexForFG), or on Twitter (@AlexForFG).

-Alexander

Sep 10

9/9 – Feature in the FG Leader

Edwin Rios at the Forest Grove Leader posted a nice write-up today from our discussion several days ago, about the campaign and my stance on the issues, along with a short video.  You can check it out here.

-Alexander