Intersection solutions move closer to design

A solution and design for an unsafe and slow intersection will move a step closer toward construction this month when Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities officials choose one of three alternatives for the Main Street and Sterling Highway intersection. 

Those alternatives are:

• A 140-foot diameter, single-lane roundabout costing an estimated $4.1 million;

• A traffic signal with no turn lanes costing $1.5 million, and

• A traffic signal with new turn lanes costing $1.9 million.

On March 18, a public workshop on the alternatives was held by DOT&PF officials and representatives from Brooks & Associates, a public relations agency, and USKH, an Anchorage design firm. Officials answered questions about the ideas and encouraged visitors to submit written comments. About 100 people showed up and 50 submitted comments, said Carla Smith, project manager for DOT&PF, Anchorage.

The intersection rose to the top of a list of intersection improvements under the federal Highway Safety Improvement Program. Alaska has received a pool of funding to address unsafe intersections, with the Main Street and Sterling Highway intersection identified as a top priority for Homer. According to the department, between 2006 and 2010, there have been 13 crashes at the intersection. Nine were angle crashes, two were rear-end crashes, one was a sideswipe crash and one was a pedestrian-car crash with major injuries.

The difference in costs reflects factors such as right-of-way acquisition costs, utility costs (including relocating utilities) and construction costs. Design costs for all three alternatives are about the same, but the roundabout has the highest right-of-way and utility costs. The 140-foot wide roundabout would require right-of-way on all four corners and a retaining wall at NAPA Auto Parts on the northwest corner. NAPA also would lose several parking spaces with the roundabout and signal with turn lanes.

Other factors also are considered, such as the crash benefit — how much money is saved in injuries and property damage — maintenance and operation costs, and a delay benefit, or how much time is saved. A roundabout has a higher crash benefit and a lower maintenance and operation cost while the signals have a higher delay benefit.

Smith said the proposed roundabout is similar to roundabouts in Anchorage on Huffman Road by the Carrs grocery store shopping center. At 140-feet wide, it can handle 67-foot long trucks and trucks with trailers. A center apron around the circle would allow space for rear left wheels of trailers being moved on the tightest turn, a ¾-left turn. Traffic entering a roundabout has to yield to traffic in the roundabout, so the challenge for a driver is to smoothly enter the roundabout. One issue on the Sterling Highway is that traffic from either direction might not allow gaps for people to enter roundabouts.

That was a complaint truck driver Troy Jones had about the roundabout.

“If it’s bumper-to-bumper traffic; you can’t ever get into a roundabout,” he said.

Based on comments department officials received or that were heard at the workshop, many people agreed with Jones. Smith said most comments favored a traffic signal, with no preference between alternatives expressed.

Skip Perk, another truck driver, said the roundabout would be too tight for trucks. Adrienne Sweeney, owner of AJ’s Old Town Steakhouse and the Driftwood Inn, said she preferred a traffic signal.

“They just make me nervous,” she said of roundabouts.

Perk said he drove the Dowling Road roundabout in Anchorage and kept going in circles trying to figure a way out.

Smith said that when she talks to people and hears negative comments about roundabouts, often they’ll mention the Dowling Road roundabout. That roundabout is actually two, two-lane roundabouts going under the Seward Highway overpass. It moves traffic entering or leaving the highway in both directions onto Dowling Road.

Public comments, construction costs and other factors will all be considered by the department in making its decision, Smith said. 

“We want to look at something that’s going to be good for the next 20 years of design life,” Smith said. “We don’t want to have to revisit the intersection. We’re trying to make the most of the public’s money.”

The preferred alternative will be announced next month. Once that’s done, the department will prepare an environmental document and send it to the federal government for review and approval. That should happen by late summer or early fall. The department will then do final design work and then start with right-of-way negotiations and acquisitions, about an 18-month process. Construction could start in 2016 or 2017.

“I’m excited to have something done,” Sweeney said of the move forward toward building intersection improvements.

The department also will make a simpler, less-expensive intersection improvement further up the hill at Main Street and Pioneer Avenue. Sometime this winter or next summer contractors will make that a four-way stop with flashing stop lights, similar to Lake Street and Pioneer Avenue.