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.