City struggles to relieve traffic congestion resulting from the freeway

Photo Credit: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - The Wilsonville-Boones Ferry Road intersection is one of the busiest junctions in Wilsonville. Even a 2011 expansion of the I-5-Wilsonville Road interchange a block east has failed to halt ongoing traffic congestion during peak hours, forcing city officials to look for a new fix. You may not be familiar with the economic theory of induced demand. But, if you’ve spent any amount of time suffering through traffic at the Wilsonville Road-I-5 interchange, you’ve experienced it.

A $21.5 million project added capacity to the critical intersection three years ago. That increased capacity, in turn, “induced” more people to use the road, resulting in the same kind of traffic snarls the original project was intended to relieve.

“It’s not new at all,” said Wilsonville Police Sgt. Dan Kraus, who spent a recent afternoon observing the traffic at the troublesome intersection.

On that day, a jackknifed semi-truck tied up I-5 traffic near milepost 282 for several hours just north of Charbonneau. The ensuing congestion caused massive backups inside Wilsonville proper, including at the Boones Ferry Road-Wilsonville Road intersection one block west of the freeway.

The Wilsonville Road-I-5 junction is the access point for commercial businesses on both sides of Wilsonville Road, and it has long been a traffic choke point. What Kraus observed showed that little has changed in that regard, despite repeated expansions of both local road and freeway capacity.

“We could put eight lanes in there and on I-5 they couldn’t get anywhere still,” said Wilsonville Community Development Director Nancy Kraushaar.

She said city staff has approached the Oregon Department of Transportation to consider adding an auxiliary lane between the Wilsonville Road interchange and Charbonneau on the southbound side of the freeway. That would match an existing, northbound auxiliary lane and could potentially eliminate some congestion.

“The only problem with an 'aux' lane,” Kraushaar said, “is the bridge. It’s a very tall order. From my understanding of that bridge, there is not enough width to add another lane.”

Old Town Escape?

One solution could be the long-sought “Old Town Escape” traffic project. Included in the city’s transportation master plan, the project would consist of a new road connecting Kinsman Road to the west with either Bailey or Fifth Street in the Old Town neighborhood south of Wilsonville Road.

That long-term fix, however, would be expensive — up to $9 million — and would affect a number of local property owners and businesses.

Another possibility, Kraushaar said, could be the addition of a second northbound right-turn lane on Boones Ferry Road where it intersects with Wilsonville Road. Currently, there is a single right-turn lane that regularly is backed up with traffic looking to travel across the intersection and continue north on Boones Ferry Road.

Adding a third queuing lane to the southbound I-5 on-ramp also could be studied, she added, as could the adjustment of the timing of traffic signals on city streets. The first would require ODOT approval, while the second could be done by the city on its own.

ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton declined to discuss specific projects, but did confirm the agency is talking with the city of Wilsonville about the issue.

“We have started talking with officials from the city and we’ll be happy to talk with them and listen to ideas about what might help the process and what can be done to solve some of the issues that are facing them,” Hamilton said.

“There are a lot of variables and that’s what we’re going to be talking about,” he added. “It’s never easy.”

For City Councilor Scott Starr, who first raised the issue at the council level at a July 21 work session, traffic problems impact residents’ quality of life as well as local businesses.

“What it did for me is, we can do so many things,” Starr said of the July 23 tie-up. “And a lot of people might say, ‘I don’t care about the customer service or water fees, I just want to drive home fast and I can’t do it now, so the council isn’t doing their job.’ Well, that’s not true, but it is true to a degree.”

Starr said the multi-million dollar Old Town Escape project, which has languished in the conceptual stages for years now, is likely to get a much closer look going forward.

Wilsonville City Manager Bryan Cosgrove said at an Aug. 4 council work session that he personally has sat through as many as four red-light cycles at the Boones Ferry-Wilsonville road intersection. This, he said, may be an indication that signal timing within the city need adjustment.

“I sat through four cycles there, people are running red lights,” he told the council. “We do need to look at the timing; there’s something there going on that shouldn’t be going on.”

Kraushaar said ongoing road work, including repaving, on Wilsonville Road east of the interstate may be partly to blame. Timing from side streets entering Wilsonville Road was changed to accommodate the work, she said.

“We’ll look at the signalization along Wilsonville Road, and other intersections can be examined as well,” she said.

In the meantime, Kraus and other Wilsonville police officers will be watching the area more closely in hopes of maintaining a safer driving environment.

“I can tell you from watching it that during our heavy periods of traffic it’s every light cycle or every other light cycle that we have one or several infractions being committed by drivers,” he said. “So it’ll be a priority.”

On the day Kraus was observing traffic in the area, a fellow officer handed out 11 warnings in less than 45 minutes. Each one could have been a formal citation. The day after, police issued 10 citations at the Boones Ferry-Wilsonville Road intersection.

“A lot of people are blowing the light trying to get into the shopping centers,” Kraus said. “So now we’ve started to throw resources at it; we’re trying to take a dual approach of education — direct communication methods, talking to the media, Twitter and enforcement.”

By Josh Kulla
Assistant Editor / Photographer
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