Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Should We Stop or Should We Slow?

Posted By on Wed, Jan 19, 2011 at 2:45 PM

"Be careful at Timmerman Junction."

People in Blaine County say this all the time. The intersection of U.S. Highway 20 and Idaho Highway 75, colloquially known as Timmerman Junction, is locally regarded as an asphalt Bermuda Triangle, a spot on the map defied by the rules of physics and a place to be extra careful, because people crash there.

How many people? Between 2000 and 2009, the Idaho Transportation Department recorded 26 accidents at Timmerman Junction. In the last six months alone, there were three serious accidents that injured 11. After a decade or so of this kind of thing, the authorities decided to do something about it.

Last November, local Blaine County officials sent ITD a request to please, like seriously, do something. Engineers at ITD, in that big shiny glass building on State Street in Boise, started doing what they do best, engineering a solution. They determined that the intersection needed an eventual overhaul, possibly in the form of a roundabout, that revolving-door-concept popular all over the world ("Look kids, Big Ben, Parliament!"). But that could take years, so ITD recommended a temporary remedy—a four-way stop. If all traffic is forced to stop, there will be fewer high-speed crashes. Sounds logical, right?

Not according to local residents.

After the local paper reported on the planned changes, the Blaine County public (at least those who comment on the Idaho Mountain Express website) went into a characteristic fury.

A commenter writing under the name "Idaho Native" had this to say:
"IDIOTS!!! Put a bandaid over a gushing wound! We can now expect an increase in accidents at that intersection! I think we should hold the damn pencil pushers responsible for the injuries or even deaths they are about to cause!"

"Erik" added his own unique logic: "Traffic lights, signs and many other methods of traffic control may seem logical when they actually create a false sense of security, possibly even confusion and distraction. People may be spending so much time trying to read and comprehend signage they forget who stops and who doesn't."

My favorite commenter was "Old School," who groused: "Back in the day when I grew up around here we payed attention to the traffic on the road."

At ITD they are used to this kind of reaction. Devin Rigby has been a District Engineer with ITD for 13 years and has worked with the agency for 25 years. He oversees about 1,000 miles of roads and about 167 employees. Does it bother him that people have such little faith in what his agency does?

"It's an interesting process that we go through," Rigby said with admirable understatement. While the Timmerman project did receive a healthy number of skeptical comments, so do many of ITD's projects, he said. What made this case unique was that Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling voiced his shared opposition to ITD’s plan.

Rigby and the sheriff's department, unruffled by the online kerfuffle, met in December and found new common ground. They agreed on a new temporary solution: flashing lights and lower speed limits (from 55 mph to 45 mph) for north-south traffic on Highway 75, along with an "extremely aggressive law enforcement presence."

"Our experience is that just posting a speed limit does not change the way that people drive," Rigby said. But the sheriff's commitment to patrolling the area was enough to convince him to try. Rigby is optimistic but said all options remain open.

"If reducing the speed solves the problem, then everyone is going to be happy. If it doesn't, we will need to take a serious look at a four-way stop."

The new signs and lower speed limit will be enforced in February. As for the eventual roundabout, that could be six or seven years in the future. Public discontent is almost guaranteed, but in Blaine County's boisterous political forum, colorful comments are part of the process.

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