Tragedy gets officials' attention
- Jill Rehkopf Smith
- Portland Tribune - News
About 85 people pack into auditorium to push for intersection improvements
Changes are already underway at the deadly intersection of Highway 47 and Northwest Verboort/Purdin Road, where two Pacific University students were killed in a crash April 7.
Their deaths at that intersection following previous deaths there of Kaylee Tawzer, 16, in 2007 and Scott Thunem, 38, in 1997 sparked a public outcry that drew eight government officials to a town hall meeting last Wednesday, April 23, in Forest Groves Community Auditorium.
Sonny Chickering, ODOTs Region 2 manager, told the packed room that ODOT studied the intersection in 2007 following Tawzers death and considered three improvements, including a traffic light and an overpass, but concluded a roundabout would be the best way to make the intersection safer. After the recent deaths of Kiden Dilla and Ayan Osman, his engineers reviewed the study and confirmed that finding.
Many family and friends of Kiden and Ayan drove from Portland to attend the meeting, including Kidens aunt, Edith Duku, who tearfully asked Chickering, Why didnt we do something before this fateful day?
Chickering acknowledged he had no good answer except the sad truth that there are so many safety issues and fatal crashes throughout the state that ODOT doesnt have enough money to fund all the desired improvements.
There are rooms like this all over the state where there have been tragedies and people are asking Why cant we be first? said state Sen. Betsy Johnson.
The Highway 47-Verboort intersection, Chickering said, just didnt make it to the top of the list.
But it has now taken a giant jump in that direction. Two days after the meeting, ODOT crews replaced the 50 mph signs on Highway 47 near the intersection with 45 mph signs and will likely install transverse rumble strips this week to catch drivers attention and slow them down.
This summer, for the first time in the state, Chickering said, ODOT plans to install flashing beacon lights that will alert drivers on Highway 47 when a car is approaching on Verboort/Purdin roads, making Oregon the third state in the country to use this new technology.
And until a permanent roundabout goes in, ODOT engineers are even considering a temporary roundabout, Chickering said, which would be a first for Oregon.
Meanwhile, ODOTs Area Manager Larry McKinley has prepared a request for $750,000 from the Oregon Transportation Commission at its mid-May meeting in order to begin preliminary engineering and design work on a permanent roundabout. In addition, he said, he will try to speed up the purchase of private land for right-of-way a process that usually takes 12 months.
Those shortcuts could mean a roundabout would be constructed as soon as next summer, in 2015.
That wasnt enough for a tearful Kathy Tawzer mother of Kaylee who told the officials, If this was your daughter, it would be done. Tawzer said she had 2,500 signatures on a petition to install a traffic signal at the intersection.
A number of audience members told war stories about their dangerous encounters at that intersection and discounted the roundabout plan, pushing instead for a traffic light, which has been a longstanding dream for many local residents.
But traffic officials insisted that while stoplights are fine for city streets, they actually cause more accidents (and more serious injuries) when used on high-speed rural highways.
Roundabouts, on the other hand, reduce both speed and possible points of conflict (there is only one lane to pay attention to, going only one direction).
Much of the world relies on roundabouts because they are the preferred way to get people through busy intersections, said Washington County Commission Chairman Andy Duyck, whose Verboort-based business sends him through the intersection numerous times.
A roundabout does slow the traffic down, but it keeps the traffic moving, said Commissioner Bob Terry, who was particularly affected by the recent double-fatal accident because as the head of Fisher Farms, he owned the box truck that struck the girls.
Some people felt a traffic light would still be a better option because it would cost less ($1.5 million to $2 million) than a roundabout, meaning there would be more money left for other important projects in the state.
Chickering said the roundabout may be the most expensive option, but its also the safest. I feel like weve already done the Band-Aids, he said. We need to do the best job and finish it.
State Sen. Bruce Starr (R-Hillsboro) and Johnson said they would work together in the next legislative session to find the $3 million to $5 million needed for the permanent roundabout, aided by Johnsons position as chair of the Ways and Means subcommittee that handles transportation funding.
A roundabout wont stop every crash but it will dramatically reduce the severity of injuries, Starr said.
Yes, a traffic light would cost less, but I would prefer accidents with no deaths, he said. Does that mean we need to spend more money? Yes. Does that mean we dont have money for other projects? Yes it does. Does that make my job difficult? Yes.