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Camas officials weigh intersection improvements

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Illustrations show what the intersection at Northwest Lake Road and Northwest Sierra Street might look like if the city of Camas installs a traffic signal (left) or a mini-roundabout (right) to help alleviate congestion on Sierra Street and improve safety for drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists and other road users. (Illustrations by MacKay Sposito/DKS, courtesy of the city of Camas)

A recent analysis of a busy Camas intersection shows the merger of Northwest Lake Road and Northwest Sierra Street must be improved to withstand future population growth, ensure the safety of road users and alleviate long wait times for drivers turning left from Sierra Street onto Lake Road, one of Camas’ busiest thoroughfares.

“The goal is to improve safety for all and decrease wait times,” Camas Engineering Manager Curleigh Carothers told Camas City Council members during their workshop Monday, Feb. 5.

Without improvements, Carothers added, the intersection will eventually fail the City’s standards and would, by the year 2045, cause traffic jams on Northwest Sierra Street, with drivers lined up past Northwest 45th Avenue and waiting nearly two minutes to turn onto Northwest Lake Road.

In 2023, Camas officials agreed to hire consultants from MacKay Sposito and DKS Associates to evaluate the busy intersection and consider possible improvements.

On Monday, Carothers detailed the consultants’ findings, showing that the intersection could be improved using either a traffic signal or a mini-roundabout.

Both options would help alleviate congestion and wait times on Sierra Street, Carothers said, but come with their own unique pros and cons.

The traffic signal would be less expensive than the roundabout to install — consultants estimate it would cost $1.7 million to build the traffic signal compared to a projected $3.1 million to create a mini-roundabout — and would reduce crashes by 14% with less impacts to private utilities in the area.

The roundabout, on the other hand, would come with more upfront costs and would require right-of-way acquisitions of nearby private property as well as the construction of retaining walls, but would reduce crashes by 20%; come with a higher safety rating; have lower maintenance costs; and have the ability to clear traffic faster, allowing traffic to move without interruption during off-peak hours.

Carothers showed that the traffic signal option, however, would fail to meet the intersection’s needs during the height of traffic in the morning hours by 2039.

“There is no recommendation,” Camas Public Works Director Steve Wall told Council members Monday. “This is a very good policy question for Council. The option for the roundabout will (serve the intersection’s needs for longer than) our traditional 20-year option, but it costs more. On the flip side, you have a traffic signal that likely costs less but doesn’t serve us in the long-run and likely doesn’t even get us to the 20-year timeframe much less anywhere beyond that … If we continue forward, (the question is) ‘How much money do we want to spend and how far down the road do we want this to get us?’”

Councilwoman questions if improvements are needed

The consultants also showed what would happen to the intersection without improvements. Though the “no build” scenario showed Lake Road would receive a “C” grade and Sierra Street would fail the city’s road grading formula by the year 2045, Camas Councilwoman Jennifer Senescu said she believed officials should consider holding off on making improvements to the intersection.

“I’m looking at it, and I don’t see the ‘no build’ as being not an option,” Senescu said Monday during the Council’s workshop, noting that the intersection has had four non-serious-injury crashes over the past five years.

“It doesn’t seem that speed is causing the accidents with only four crashes in five years,” Senescu said. “I don’t live there and haven’t seen (the traffic backups on Sierra Street during peak traffic hours), but I’m looking at the numbers and the graphs, and I don’t know that a no-build is not an option.”

Councilwoman Bonnie Carter, who does live in a neighborhood close to the Lake-Sierra intersection, which is currently controlled by a stop sign on Sierra Street, responded that the “no build” option could be costlier for the City in the long-run.

“It will fail in 2045,” Carter said of the Lake-Sierra intersection. “And we will risk escalation of costs at that time.”

Senescu questioned how much development was truly expected in that part of Camas, but Carothers pointed out that the consultants’ studies project a 75% increase in traffic at the Lake-Sierra intersection over the next two decades.

Carter and Councilman Tim Hein said they were concerned for bicyclists who use the intersection.

“I saw a teen crossing from Sierra … and I don’t know how that child made it across (Lake Road) without getting hit,” Carter said.

Hein pointed out that, as the number of drivers using the intersection increases, “people are taking more risks … especially as they pull out and take a left turn (from Sierra Street onto Lake Road).”

Wall said the “no build” option would mean the intersection would not meet the City’s own road standards.

“That would not meet our own standards,” Wall said of the “no build” option. “If a developer came in and showed us those numbers, we would very strongly tell them they have to improve that intersection. Typically, (the unimproved intersection) is not something we would allow others to do. Based on our own standards, we are going to need to do something. Not necessarily today, but in the very near future.”

Boerke: ‘Just because something is less expensive doesn’t mean it’s the best option’

Though city staff did not recommend one option over the other, the city’s consultants told Camas officials the mini-roundabout would likely be preferable.

“As compared to a traffic signal, the operational benefits of the roundabout option include a higher (level of service), less delay and a higher level of safety,” the consultants stated in their report to city managers. “While roundabouts may have higher initial construction costs, they often result in lower ongoing operational and maintenance costs compared to traffic signals without the potential of losing operation during a power outage or after a traffic incident.”

The consultants added that roundabouts “often provide smoother traffic flow, reducing congestion and potentially lowering overall costs related to delays and fuel consumption.”

Several Council members also seemed to favor the roundabout option.

“We’re facing a 75 percent traffic increase, and traffic lights (cause) idling cars and stop-and-go trucks, which are noise-changers for neighborhoods,” Svilarich said. “I know it’s a big number, but I think the traffic circle (roundabout) is a direction we should investigate.”

Other Council members agreed that the roundabout option made more sense for the City when they weighed the short-term versus long-term benefits.

“I came into the conversation thinking I would prefer the signal, but we could spend $1.7 million for that and still have to do something later. Then, what could have been $3 million in today’s dollars (to build a mini-roundabout) will probably be twice that down the road,” Councilwoman Marilyn Boerke said. “We try to be very prudent with citizens’ money, but just because something is less expensive doesn’t mean it’s the best option.”

Hein agreed that the roundabout option made more sense, but said he also would like to gather more public input before making a final decision.

“I think it’s worth spending more money for, ultimately, a better solution in the long-term,” Hein said Monday. “But, also, I think it’s super important to get public feedback from residents … and to get it quick.”

Councilman John Nohr pointed out that Northwest Lake Road is “probably the second-busiest route in and out of town” and said he had recently become a roundabout supporter.

“When they suggested a roundabout at Sixth and Highway 14, I thought it was the craziest thing,” Nohr said. “But I am a strong convert to roundabouts. They keep traffic moving and you don’t see crashes like you do at a (traffic) light. This one looks like a challenge, but still, ultimately, if you’re going to control that intersection, the roundabout is probably the safest, best way to do it.”

In the end, officials directed staff to seek public input on the intersection improvements.

“We can do that,” Wall told Council members Monday. “This will be an opportunity for us to talk about the options out there.”