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.


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.