Forest Grove's traffic issue spans country
If you've lived in or around Forest Grove long enough, then you're familiar with the intersection of Tualatin Valley Highway, Maple Street and Fern Hill Road.
The junction is perhaps the city's most infamous. Data obtained by the Pamplin Media Group in 2018 showed it to be one of the most frequent spots in Forest Grove for police to be called out to motor vehicle crashes.
In 2014, seven people were hospitalized after one particularly severe T-bone crash at the intersection.
"I know that from our perspective, it's probably one of the highest-accident locations in and around the city," said Gregory Robertson, Forest Grove's public works director. "And they're significant in terms of their number, as well as their severity."
But despite its danger and notoriety, changes remain years away — and for Paul and Mary Liz Stewart, they will come too late.
After visiting his aunt in Portland, New York resident Daniel Stewart made the decision to relocate to Oregon. Since traveling more than 5,000 miles cross-country on his motorcycle this past summer, he had lined up an apartment, secured a handful of job interviews, and was acquainting himself with the city and surrounding areas he'd soon call home.
Just two weeks after arrival, his dreams were cut short.
Daniel Stewart, 34, was a motorcycle enthusiast. But his parents, Paul and Mary Liz Stewart, remember him as a stickler for safety and etiquette. He always wore a helmet and the proper clothes, they recalled, and had a calculating way about him that lent itself to a more than adequate level of caution. He even taught motorcycle safety classes in New York state.
On July 12, Stewart was traveling southbound on Highway 47 when a northbound SUV attempted to make a left turn onto Maple Street, striking Stewart in the process. The person driving the SUV was transported to an area hospital, while Stewart was pronounced dead at the scene.
While devastated by their son's death, Paul and Mary Liz Stewart, who still live in New York, have focused on the intersection and what they can possibly do to avoid a similar tragedy in the future.
"We'd like to see something good come out of this tragedy, because it was really rather senseless," Paul Stewart said. "I know there's been talk about a roundabout, which certainly would improve things, and we'd like to participate in whatever way we can to help bring that forward."
A roundabout is one of the options being considered, according to Washington County project manager Renus Kelfkens. Other options are still on the table.
While its geometry isn't nearly as complicated as some of Washington County's other infamous intersections — the "six corners" intersection at Southwest Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, Scholls Ferry Road and Oleson Road in Raleigh Hills, for instance, or the tangle where Northwest Cornelius Pass, Germantown and Old Cornelius Pass roads meet north of West Union — the Forest Grove intersection has some subtle difficulties that have contributed both to its high crash rate and city and county officials' struggle to fix it.
"It's proving tricky based on just how unique and complex this intersection is," Kelfkens said.
Complications include a rail crossing on Fern Hill Road just south of the highway; a Forest Grove School District bus barn off Fern Hill Road just south of the Highway 47 intersection, along with the Fern Hill Wetlands natural area; and further south, a water treatment plant run by the Joint Water Commission, all of which could affect the traffic flow on a roundabout.
For roundabouts to function properly, traffic has to be able to flow continuously. The flow of southbound traffic from the roundabout would shut down when railroad crossing arms come down for a train on Fern Hill Road. School buses also are required by law to stop at railroad crossings, whether there is a train approaching or not, also potentially snarling roundabout traffic.
Other concepts that have been discussed include a traffic signal or a "reverse U-turn" configuration, Kelfens said.
The "reverse U-turn" would prohibit north and southbound traffic on Maple and Fern Hill Roads from crossing Highway 47 directly, forcing a right turn onto Highway 47 before then making a left further down to return back to make a right onto either Maple or Fern Hill, dependent on your direction. At other problematic intersections, studies have shown the reverse U-turn setup to reduce crash rates by about 30%, and crash severity by 50%.
The signal would be more straightforward, but it would be an unusual installation for Highway 47. Aside from its signalized junction with Highway 8 just northeast of the Maple/Fern Hill intersection, the signal at Sunset Drive/Beal Road north of Forest Grove, and another signal at the Highway 6 ramp in Banks, there are no other traffic signals on the route from McMinnville to Clatskanie.
Kelfkens acknowledged the importance of this specific project and said he hopes to have planning completed by next spring. At that point, it moves to the design stage, and beyond that construction, putting potential completion likely a couple years down the line.
Mary Liz Stewart understands it's a process, but she pointed out that it has taken a long time even to get to this point.
"I read a newspaper article reflecting the same situation in 2013," she said. "The article was indicating that folks in the community at that time were very interested in seeing attention being given to that intersection. And here we are, seven years later."
Robertson, who has spoken directly with the Stewarts, said he understands their concerns and appreciates their commitment.
"I think they're trying to bring a voice to the table for their son," Robertson said. "And that's completely admirable and powerful as well."
Nothing will bring Daniel Stewart back. Not a roundabout, a signal, a reverse U-turn or any other traffic pattern change can return the 34-year-old son to the parents who miss him dearly. But while the powers-that-be work towards a solution, and local residents continue to wait, the Stewarts are left to wonder what could have been if the intersection's issues had been addressed sooner.
"You break down when you think about it," Paul Stewart said. "You suffer over it, really."
Mark Miller contributed
to this report.
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