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Clark County’s highest-volume intersection is getting some planning attention, but no immediate construction dollars to ease chronic congestion.
The Washington State Department of Transportation has identified five packages of potential improvements to ease congestion and improve safety at the intersection of state Highway 500 and Northeast Fourth Plain Boulevard in Orchards.
On Wednesday, the public will get a chance to review the five packages when WSDOT hosts an open house from 4 to 7 p.m. in the commons area of Covington Middle School, 11200 N.E. Rosewood Ave., Vancouver.
The open house will have a drop-in format, with no formal presentation. Attendees can meet with WSDOT staff, view possible improvement packages, ask questions and offer their own thoughts and ideas.
“We really want to hear from the public,” said Kimberly Pincheira, WSDOT ‘s communications manager in Southwest Washington. “We are not doing this to just check the box.”
Judith Perez, a WSDOT planner, said her agency isn’t looking for people to voice a preference for which package they prefer.
“We are asking them to tell us what we are missing,” she said.
All five of the improvement packages include some minor operational changes coupled with different levels of infrastructure improvements. The most ambitious option, which would elevate Highway 500/Highway 503 over Fourth Plain Boulevard, has a rough cost estimate of $75 million. WSDOT currently has no money to pay for new large projects.
“It’s really honing into our options to let us move more quickly when funding comes available,” Pincheira said.
Two state lawmakers from the 17th Legislative District, which includes the Highway 500-Fourth Plain Boulevard intersection, offered different perspectives on future funding prospects.
Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, was optimistic that legislators could secure future funding.
“I’m very aware of the intersection; (it) gets backed up quite often during the day,” Harris said. “I think we can probably come up with the money for the project.”
Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, was less positive.
“I think some of the major transportation projects could come beyond what many would support — or I would,” she said.
Wilson said the unsuccessful transportation package debated during the 2019 session included a potpourri of tax and fee increases, including a gas tax hike and a carbon pollution fee.
“It would hit everybody in the pocketbook,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a tough go for any large project.”
One possible option, Wilson said, is using the excise tax collected on vehicle purchases to pay for transportation projects, adding that she has no doubts about the need to improve the Highway 500-Fourth Plain Boulevard intersection.
“I travel that corridor every day, and it needs help,” she said.
Congestion and delay
About 72,000 vehicles pass through the intersection each weekday, according to 2016 traffic data compiled by WSDOT. More recent data identified the location as having the most congestion and motorist delay of any highway intersection in Clark County.
Earlier this year, nearly 3,000 respondents provided comments through an online survey. Perez said respondents reported being concerned about congestion and safety and described alternative routes they use to avoid traffic jams.
“Depending on the time of the day and the direction of travel, they have to wait two or three (traffic signal) cycles,” Perez said.
The five packages include two operational changes that the state should be able to make without additional funding:
• Traffic signal optimization: WSDOT proposes to work with Clark County and the city of Vancouver to better coordinate traffic signal operations across jurisdictional boundaries. Rick Keniston, traffic engineer for WSDOT’s Southwest Region, told Clark County councilors earlier this year that his agency and Clark County have developed a centralized traffic-signal system.
“All of our traffic signal servers are talking to each other,” Keniston said. “And we are also heading toward that with the city of Vancouver, too.”
• Northeast 65th Street changes: WSDOT proposes to restripe one of the two westbound lanes on 65th Street immediately east of Highway 503 from the current shared through/left-turn lane to one that is used exclusively for left turns. The other lane would be restriped to become a shared through/right-turn lane. A flashing yellow arrow would be added to the traffic signal so drivers could turn left after yielding to oncoming traffic.
Both are considered modest operational changes that likely can be built without seeking additional funding. Pincheira said her agency still needs to fine tune some items before it proceeds.
“We intend to implement them in the near term,” she said.
Major infrastructure improvements will take more time and money to plan, design and build. Proposals to be presented at Wednesday’s open house include:
• Add a third northbound lane on Highway 503 between Fourth Plain Boulevard and Padden Parkway. Convert the highway’s southbound right-turn lane at Fourth Plain Boulevard to a shared right-turn/through lane to allow a third lane for southbound traffic through the intersection.
• Connect the existing right-turn lanes on Fourth Plain Boulevard east of the intersection to provide a third eastbound lane between Highway 500 and Northeast 131st Avenue. Widen Highway 500 northbound to provide a second right-turn lane eastbound onto Fourth Plain Boulevard.
• Elevate Highway 500/Highway 503 over Fourth Plain Boulevard. Consider building roundabouts at Highway 503-65th Street and Fourth Plain Boulevard-Northeast 121st Avenue.
• Convert the westbound left-turn lanes from Fourth Plain Boulevard onto Highway 500 southbound using an elevated “flyover” ramp, effectively allowing that traffic to bypass the intersection.
• Convert the westbound left-turn lanes from Fourth Plain Boulevard to Highway 500 southbound using what’s known as a “displaced” left turn. With this configuration, left-turn lanes would begin farther east of the intersection and cross over lanes for oncoming traffic before proceeding onto Highway 500 southbound.
Perez said the last concept is difficult to understand, in part because it has never been used in Washington. Displaced left turns, as part of what are called “continuous flow intersections,” have been used in Utah and other places, she said.
WSDOT intends to post information about the different packages online at: wsdot.wa.gov/projects/sr500/fourth-plain/home.
• What: Open house on easing congestion and improving safety at state Highway 500 and Northeast Fourth Plain Boulevard.
• When: 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday.
• Where: Commons area, Covington Middle School, 11200 N.E. Rosewood Ave., Vancouver.
• More information: wsdot.wa.gov/projects/sr500/fourth-plain/home
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