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That's how state planners spell Homer traffic relief

Posted: March 4, 2013 - 2:33pm  |  Updated: March 4, 2013 - 2:35pm
Traffic backs up at the Main Street and Sterling Highway intersection at mid-day last Friday. Crossing the highway or taking a left turn sometimes requires patience and nerves of steel. 
  Photo by  Michael Armstrong,  Homer News
Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News
Traffic backs up at the Main Street and Sterling Highway intersection at mid-day last Friday. Crossing the highway or taking a left turn sometimes requires patience and nerves of steel.

Over the next few years, downtown Homer will see several intersection and road improvements that will make safer two of the city's worst intersections and get rid of several stretches of notorious potholes on Pioneer Avenue and Lake Street.
One intersection change, at Main Street and the Sterling Highway, also could bring the first roundabout to Homer.
However, a proposed roundabout at the three-way stop at Lake Street, Pioneer Avenue and East End Road won't happen, at least as part of a road improvement project for Lake Street, said Ken Morton, preconstruction engineer for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. State planners at a September workshop on the Lake Street project had suggested the idea.
"Really, it's beyond the scope of what the project involved initially," Morton said of the roundabout idea.
The state has these four projects on the schedule for the next three years:
* A four-way overhead flashing light at Main Street and Pioneer Avenue that would make the intersection a four-way stop;
* A single-lane roundabout at Main Street and the Sterling Highway or a traffic signal with no turn lanes;
* Road improvements on Lake Street from Pioneer Avenue to near Ben Walters Lane that may include new drainage, curbs and gutters, and sidewalks or bike lanes, and
* Road improvements on Pioneer Avenue from Lake Street to the Sterling Highway that may include new drainage, and improved curbs and gutters, lighting, sidewalks and landscaping.
Safety improvement projects are driven by issues in traffic safety, evaluated by studies looking at the number of accidents, including crashes with injuries. The road improvements are funded through the Surface Transportation Improvement Program. Capacity, or how fast traffic moves, is a secondary consideration.
The state prefers a roundabout at the Main Street-Sterling Highway intersection because of such considerations as greater safety and lower maintenance costs. The estimated cost is $2.8 million for the roundabout or $1.2 million for the traffic signal.
That does not include a $2 million state grant the city of Homer had received earlier for Main Street improvements. That grant expires in June, but the Homer City Council voted in January to ask the Alaska Legislature to reappropriate that grant for a Skyline Drive fire station or a new Harbormaster's Office.
The proposed traffic signal project does not include turn lanes. For example, cars going downhill or toward Kachemak Bay on Main Street would not have left-turn and right-turn lanes as at Lake Street and the Sterling Highway.
"Intersections work a lot better when there are turn lanes," said Rick Feller, a DOT&PF spokesperson.
If built, the roundabout would be a single-lane roundabout with a bump apron -- pavement on the inside of the circle -- that could handle any vehicle traffic permissible on state highways. It would have a larger turning radius than roundabouts at Dowling Road in Anchorage, Feller said. Truck drivers prefer roundabouts because they don't have to idle at stop lights and get back up to speed, he said.
"As long as they're designed adequately and sized adequately, they offer advantages to the commercial vehicle industry as well," Feller said.
Roundabouts also are safer, Feller said.
"It virtually eliminates the deadly T-bone accidents," he said.
A study from 2005-2009 showed 14 crashes at the Main Street and Sterling Highway intersection, with one involving three cars and the rest two cars. Two were minor injury crashes; there were no major or fatal injuries. Most of the crashes, 71 percent, were angle collisions and the rest rear-end collisions. Traffic engineers predicted a 75-percent reduction in crashes with a roundabout and a 60-percent reduction with a traffic signal. However, there would be a 25-percent increase in rear-end collisions with a signal.
One issue with a roundabout is acquiring land. A draft map shows the roundabout impacting lots at all four corners. The northeast lot is vacant, and the southwest lot with the Old Inlet Book Shop cuts into a wooded corner of the business. Businesses and parking lots are closer at the other lots. Right-of-way would have to be purchased from property owners. The roundabout estimate includes that cost based on tax records.
DOT&PF has not decided on which option just yet, Feller said. Because of right-of-way considerations, a decision would be made early in the process. That decision would be made in the design stage, which includes an environmental document looking at the environmental impact of options as well as the socio-economic impact
"It's a combination of influences that guide us to decision making," Morton said. "Those influences include a heavy dose of public input, what the public sees as the most appropriate avenue to go in achieving the project goals."
The $404,000 Main Street and Pioneer Avenue project has only one option: a four-way flashing red light. As at Lake Street and Pioneer Avenue - East End Road, drivers in all directions would make a full stop and proceed according to state driving regulations.
A 2005-2009 study of that intersection showed eight crashes, including two single-vehicle crashes with pedestrians. Most collisions were rear-end collisions from westbound cars coming over the hill and meeting turning or stopped cars. Angle crashes also were common. Engineers predicted a 70-percent reduction in crashes after the four-way flashing light goes in. Engineering on the project will start soon, Morton said, with construction in 2014.
The Pioneer Avenue rehabilitation project also will address stretches of potholes, including a notorious patch just west of Heath Street that drivers avoid by going into a middle turn lane. Design of that project will be in 2014, with construction in 2015.
The Lake Street rehabilitation project will address several bad stretches of potholes on about a 2,500-foot section. Construction will start in late 2015 or early 2016. It will make drainage improvements and construct sidewalks on both sides or a bike lane on one side and a sidewalk on the other. Engineers are in the process of developing the environmental document and should have plans ready for review this summer. A public workshop was held in September.
The intersection projects are funded through the DOT&PF Highway Safety Improvement Program, with about 90 percent of funding coming from the federal government. The Federal Highway Administration allocates a percentage of highway improvement funds for safety considerations.
A meeting on the Sterling Highway-Main Street intersection will be held at a time and place to be announced, Morton said.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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