As a project to overhaul Highway 47's intersection with Northwest Martin Road cleared a key milestone last month, Washington County officials haven't forgotten about another troublesome junction on the highway through Forest Grove.
The Martin Road intersection is expected to be replaced with a roundabout sometime in 2021, similar to the roundabouts where Highway 47 meets Northwest David Hill Road, about a mile and a half to the north, and where the highway intersects with Northwest Purdin and Verboort roads about half a mile north of Forest Grove city limits.
A fourth roundabout could be built on Highway 47 at Maple Street and Fern Hill Road, according to a county spokeswoman, although it's just one option among several under consideration.
Heather Sturgill of the Washington County Department of Land Use & Transportation said the county has commissioned a traffic study at the intersection, which city officials have long cited as one of Forest Grove's most problematic.
"It's a complicated intersection, and we have concerns for safety as well," Sturgill said "We want to do this the right way so that we improve safety for everyone."
Much of the difficulty with the Highway 47, Maple Street and Fern Hill Road intersection can be summarized by those routes' appellations.
Highway 47, also known on that stretch as Southwest Tualatin Valley Highway, is a state highway that runs from McMinnville to Clatskanie. It's a major commercial route that passes through cities — Forest Grove and McMinnville are the largest population centers, by far, along the route — as well as farmland and timberland, carrying log truck traffic, combines and more. Although it's a two-lane road for most of its length, there is a wide center lane for left-hand turns where it meets Maple Street and Fern Hill Road.
Maple Street is a city street in between Highway 47 in the south and Highway 8, also signed as Pacific Avenue, in the north. Along with houses and apartments, it accesses Joseph Gale Elementary School, the Tuality urgent care clinic, and the Brookdale senior living center along the way, so there is a mix of traffic.
Fern Hill Road is a county road that runs from Forest Grove south toward Gaston. The Forest Grove School District has offices and a bus barn off Fern Hill Road just south of the Highway 47 intersection. Across the road, Clean Water Services operates the Fernhill Wetlands natural area. Further south, there's a water treatment plant run by the Joint Water Commission. The road is also used by commuters as a connection to Highway 219, or Southwest Hillsboro Highway, via Southwest Blooming Fern Hill Road.
With three different road types all meeting at one intersection, traffic doesn't always follow predictable patterns. Some vehicles continue onto Maple Street directly from Fern Hill Road, or vice versa, so they need to cross all three lanes of Highway 47. When there are eastbound vehicles trying to turn left onto Maple Street from Highway 47, they can obstruct the view of westbound drivers trying to turn left onto Fern Hill Road.
Complicating matters further, there is an active rail line running parallel to Highway 47, and it crosses Fern Hill Road just south of the intersection — between the highway and the bus barn. By law, school buses are required to stop at rail crossings, even when they're empty. That creates a risk of gridlock if another vehicle follows a school bus onto Fern Hill Road, then has to stop behind it.
"The traffic study will consider the railroad as well," Sturgill said.
The rail line is owned by Union Pacific and operated by Portland & Western. Sturgill said the county will be working with the rail companies, as well as the Oregon Department of Transportation, as it considers how to design an improved intersection that accommodates the rail crossing.
Sturgill and other county officials put on an open house at the Forest Grove Community Auditorium last Tuesday, July 31, to showcase the proposed roundabout design and other safety improvements for Martin Road. It gave members of the public an opportunity to see what is planned and provide feedback.
With that project's design phase now moving along, the Maple Street and Fern Hill Road intersection is next on the docket for Highway 47 in Forest Grove.
"Unfortunately, the timetable is still a little open-ended," Sturgill said.
After reviewing the traffic study and considering its options, the county will put on another open house focusing on Maple Street and Fern Hill Road, Sturgill said, likely sometime late this year. Officials will have to decide what improvements to make at the intersection, and then the improvements will have to be designed and engineered before construction crews break ground.
If the county decides to install traffic signals at the intersection, they likely won't have to reroute traffic during construction, Sturgill noted. A more extensive reworking, such as a roundabout, could see the intersection close for a month or so.
"We're looking at starting construction for Martin Road in spring 2021, so there's potential for overlap, but it would be easier on the community if we did them sequentially," Sturgill said.
How long design and construction take depends on what the county decides to do with the data it collects, according to Sturgill. Either way, while improvements are coming, they're some time from being just around the corner.
"By the end of 2023 is the best I can say right now," she said.
The project budget is about $2.3 million, with most of that money coming from Washington County's Major Streets Transportation Improvement Program.
By Mark Miller
Washington County Editor
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