Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sheriff: 4-way stop a bad idea

State’s plan for Timmerman flouts committee suggestions


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

The Idaho Transportation Department is planning to make Timmerman Junction, above, a four-way stop. Currently, only vehicles going east or west on U.S. Highway 20 are supposed to stop. Photo by Mountain Express

The Idaho Transportation Department's plan for a four-way stop at the notorious Timmerman Junction south of Bellevue does not meet the recommendations of the department's safety committee, county officials said Monday.

The department announced its plan to install a four-way stop at the intersection of state Highway 75 and U.S. Highway 20 last Wednesday in a meeting with officials from the city of Hailey.

Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling said this week he was surprised by the department's decision, which countered the recommendations of the department's own Road Safety Audit Committee.

"I was a little shocked," said Femling, who served on the committee. "A four-way stop was the worst recommendation."

The Road Safety Audit Committee was commissioned by the department in September as part of an effort to find solutions for the accident-prone intersection. The safety audit conducted by the committee identified four major problems at the intersection: a skewed angle where the roads meet, a lack of warning signs on state Highway 75, sign clutter and distractions on Highway 20 and worn rumble strips that have become ineffective.

Femling said the four-way stop is a bad recommendation because it's likely to cause even more accidents. He said fog during the winter combined with traffic backups will cause rear-end collisions as drivers don't expect to stop there, and that exhaust from cars idling at the stop sign will make the road "unbearably slick."

"There are going to be rear-end accidents," he said.

The seven-member committee, which included five department employees, filed a report that included 15 recommendations whose implementation would span from one month to more than three years. Proposed short-term solutions include installing larger stop and "Cross Traffic Does Not Stop" notices on Highway 20 and installing flashing warning signs with speed advisories on Highway 75.

"There were some really good short-term solutions," Femling said.

Most of the committee's recommendations could have been put in place within a year. Installing larger stop signs would have cost the state $30,000. However, according to the report, installing warning and speed advisory signs on State Highway 75 could have been done within one month and cost $700.

"We could have gotten those put in place very quickly," Femling said.

But the department felt that the committee's recommendations didn't go far enough, said department traffic engineer Bruce Christiansen.

"We really appreciate their work and feel they did a good job," Christensen said of the committee. "[But] it's true they did not recommend a four-way stop."

However, he added, the committee had no funding and did not have access to a new highway safety manual. The manual calculates the effect of certain road modifications such as four-way stops and roundabouts on accident frequency. Christensen also said he did not expect the all-volunteer committee to delve into that kind of depth.

Christensen said the manual indicated that the types of accidents occurring at Timmerman could be reduced by up to 45 percent with a four-way stop.

"It became clear that we had to deal with the severity of accidents and the speed of the traffic on 75," he said. "The most effective way to control speed is to put in a stop."

District 4 Engineer Devin Rigby said it did take the committee's report into consideration, but the highway safety manual's calculations made a temporary four-way stop the best option. Christensen said that even if rear-end collisions increase, the intersection will still be safer than it is now.

"With that reduction in speed, if we do happen to get accidents there, they will be less severe," he said. "The reason we went to a four-way stop is that it's going to be quick to do and it's not going to cost a lot."

Rigby said the four-way stop is expected to be in place for anywhere from two to five years while a design is developed and funding is found for a single-lane roundabout. The roundabout, Christiansen said, will cause a "huge" reduction in accidents at the intersection. This solution was also not recommended by the committee.

"We're not rejecting their highest recommendations," Christiansen said of the department's plan. "Our thought was we could use them in addition to some of the other things that the new highway safety manual says will reduce accidents."

The improvements the department will be making based on the committee's report include flashing beacons and warning signs.

Still, Femling and the County Commissioners expressed concern that the department didn't consult the county more extensively before developing its plan.

"I understand your frustration and I share it," Commissioner Tom Bowman told Femling during the Monday meeting.

The commissioners will meet with the department on Thursday, Dec. 16, to discuss solutions for Timmerman. None of the commissioners was present when the plan was announced last week.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com

The RSA's recommendations

The Road Safety Audit Committee, commissioned in September to develop solutions for the deadly Timmerman Junction intersection south of Bellevue, released a report outlining 15 suggestions for improving intersection safety. Here are some of the highlights:

- Install 48-inch stop signs with larger "Cross Traffic Does Not Stop" signs on Highway 20.

- Install black-on-yellow warning signs with speed advisories on Highway 75, alerting drivers of the upcoming intersection. The signs will include flashing lights.

- Establish a No Passing zone in all directions.

- Use the new highway safety manual to evaluate long-term solutions such as a roundabout or traffic signal.

The committee's comment on a four-way stop reads as such: "The RSA group does not recommend a four-way stop at this time, due to potential safety and traffic flow issues a four-way stop could present at a high-speed rural intersection. A signal would provide more operating flexibility, but left turning lanes might be required on SH-75 in order to address potential rear end collisions."




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