November 18, 2007

Saucier intersection back in the news

So while I was gone (out to sea for a month), looks like yet another fatal accident at the US 49/MS 67 intersection in Saucier, MS. With the resultant calls, please, cries, and screams for MDOT to install a traffic signal there.

So I decided to write the following letter to the SunHerald. Will be interesting to see if they publish it:

Give and take

Another fatal accident at Hwy 49 and Hwy 67 in Saucier. Another screaming call for a traffic light at that intersection.

But, as tragic as ANY fatality or injury at that location is, this isn't the time for emotional decisions. A full-fledged solution, coordinated between MDOT, the residents of Saucier, and the drivers who use the road every day, is what it's time for.

The location is a tricky one, to be sure. There's school traffic, local traffic, commuter traffic, and long-distance traffic all rolled into one location, each with different needs. Long-distance traffic (as you have on Hwy 49 as it's THE 4-lane connector to Hattiesburg and Jackson) does not mesh well with local and school traffic. Throw in commuter traffic going to Gulfport and the result is the mess we have.

There are, in effect, four possible solutions to the situation. But each one has its own give and take.

The first is lowering the speed limit on Hwy 49. But without consistent and continuing speed limit enforcement (unlikely unless we increase the number of state troopers), this will do little to change the problem. This also does little to change the situation for those crossing Hwy 49, especially if those crossing drivers are not paying attention, which has been the cause of some of the accidents.

The second solution is adding a traffic signal, which is where you have your biggest give-and-take. On the one side, adding a traffic signal tends to reduce the severity of accidents, and makes it easier for local traffic to cross Hwy 49. On the flip side, studies show that adding a traffic signal on rural highways (as Hwy 49 is) tends to increase the overall number of accidents, plus increases travel delay on the main highway. There is also the driver expectation that rural highway do not have traffic signals, and introducing one will cause confusion for some or lead to potential accidents. A contributing problem in this case is the same southbound curve that already restricts visibility of the intersection from Hwy 49. A traffic signal also does not eliminate the possibility of nasty accidents. Instead of cases where one driver is going too fast or cuts in front of traffic as we have now, a traffic signal introduces the potential for nasty accidents from drivers running red lights, especially along a busy highway like Hwy 49.

The third solution is to close the median crossing at Hwy 67 and install U-turns on either end. This reduces the problem of crossing traffic, as crossing traffic will only need to deal with one side of Hwy 49 at a time and does not penalize Hwy 49 traffic as a traffic signal would. The downside is that it's more inconvenient for crossing traffic or left-turning traffic. Though this requires some right-of-way, and a large enough pull-out for trucks and buses to make a U-turn, it's less expensive than the last solution.

The last solution to the Hwy 49/Hwy 67 problem is the safest solution, but also the most expensive and the one that takes the most time to implement: a diamond interchange. This solution would allow local traffic to freely cross Hwy 49, as well as allow Hwy 49 traffic to travel unimpeded by cross-traffic. Unfortunately, diamond interchanges require some right-of-way, several million dollars, and at least a year or two to implement. And in this case, any interchange decision would be impacted by the ongoing Hwy 601 study and the decision on where to put the new Hwy 601.

So it all boils down to give-and-take. How much do MDOT and the residents of Saucier want to give up to get what they want. And how much will both Hwy 49 and local travelers have to suffer in the process. The answer won't be easy.

May 09, 2007

And now, a word from our compromiser...

So the Minnesota House and Senate have come to some sort of compromise on a transportation funding bill.

Looks like a 5 cent gas tax increase (vice the previously planned 10-cent), $1.5 billion in bonding (to be repaid via a 2.5-cent gas tax instead of the MVST transfer), and a rescinding of the second-year-and-beyond caps on vehicle registration fees for NEW vehicles (existing vehicles will apparently still have the caps on tab fees). The Strib article suggests that they're still working out other details.

That's nice. Fine and dandy. Though given that the Governor has vowed to veto *ANYTHING* involving a tax increase this year, it will be even better if this thing has enough votes to override a veto. I sure as hell hope the Republicans in the Legislature have the balls to go with what's best for Minnesota...BETTER TRANSPORTATION FUNDING...and not stick with their head-in-the-sand leader.

I know at least one who will (and Rep. Erhardt, you get kudos, as you did from me two years ago). Alas, I know at least three who won't have the balls (Seifert, Sviggum, and're on notice).

'Course, maybe someone could convince the Governor that the gas tax is like a "health impact fee"...

May 05, 2007

MnDOT wants to expand the "toll lane" business...

Time to repopulate the blog...and what a better opportunity than with a contentious transportation issue back home.

It seems that MnDOT wants to expand its inventory of HO/T lanes (or HOV/toll lanes) in the Twin Cities metro. An article in last week's StarTribune talks about MnDOT's proposal for an I-35W "toll lane" between downtown Minneapolis and Lakeville. Though the article concentrates mainly on I-35W, earlier articles mentioned the possibility of an I-494 toll lane through Plymouth, and I've heard through the grapevine about other potential corridors.

Personally, I don't see how a toll lane proposal for 35W south can be viable, for two main reasons:

- The "dynamic shoulder" bit...converting the inside shoulder into a dangerous. 35W has enough accidents as it is. Taking away one of the two parts of the roadway where those accidents (or regular breakdowns too) can be moved to and clear the regular lanes is asking for trouble. And the inside shoulder through Bloomington is substandard as it is.

Also, experience in Boston has shown that converting the shoulder into a lane not only increases accident potential, but also the severity of those accidents. There have been several fatal accidents on I-95 around Boston due to the use out there of the shoulder as a travel lane.

- Even though the existing 35W HOV lanes have a high violation rate, they also have a high rate of usage by valid HOV vehicles, not to mention the high bus frequency and usage along the corridor. And bus frequency along the corridor will likely jump even higher if the city ever manages to fix the bus lane situation along Marquette and 2nd Aves downtown. What this means is that any toll lane along 35W would have to charge a fairly high rate in order to keep the lanes flowing. And from what we've already seen with the 394 toll lanes, metro drivers aren't willing to pay that high of a price to use the lanes.

And related to that, I recall from earlier toll lane studies that traffic projections for 35W were such that by 2010 or shortly thereafter, there would be enough buses and valid HOVs using the lanes during peak hours to where there would be no room for toll-paying drivers.

The only alternatives (and the main negative aspect of each) are below:

- Have 2 toll lanes in each direction instead of one. This would solve the capacity issue noted above, but brings a whole slew of other problems: it would require either conversion of existing free lanes, or would require MAJOR construction to implement. The former is not feasible from a traffic standpoint and the latter would be both extremely expensive and likely opposed by Minneapolis.

- Increase the minimum number of riders for HOV status to 3. This would also solve the capacity issue, but would further complicate what is already a sticky enforcement issue.

- Require HOVs to pay the toll (but still allow buses to go free). This solves the enforcement problem but would likely be opposed by drivers and the city.

Although one could make the arguement that this is a way to implement "congestion pricing", the bottom line remains that it's all about money, or lack thereof, for funding road improvements. If we had a Legislature that could both support and pass a REALISTIC transportation funding package (the House version is close...the Senate version is too heavy) that is VETOPROOF (given who is sitting in the Governor's Mansion), we could solve the lack of funding problem and reduce/eliminate the need to pursue these "toll lane" carrots the Feds are offering.