Deadly intersection gets ODOT love — now just needs money

A fix for the notorious Highway 47 and Northwest Verboort/Purdin Road intersection north of Forest Grove has jumped ahead on the state’s to-do list after last week’s horrific crash.

“Due to the tragic nature of this week’s (double) fatal crash, and in light of the strong public support expressed for safety improvements at this location, the Region will begin work on the project immediately,” wrote Sonny Chickering, manager of the northwest region (Region 2) of the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT).

Chickering’s comments came in an April 9 email to state Sen. Bruce Starr, who began calling ODOT officials and concerned local leaders following the crash.

Forest Grove and Banks residents have been clamoring for a traffic light at the intersection since 16-year-old Banks High School student Kaylee Tawzer was killed there seven years ago in an eerily similar crash.

Tawzer’s sister, Chiami Nelson, who is originally from Banks but now lives in Utah, started a petition for a traffic light after the double-fatal crash April 7 and is nearing her 2,500-signatures goal. A Facebook page started by Banks City Councilor Christy Greagor, “Highway 47 and Verboort signal needed,” has 241 “likes.”

ODOT officials are responding to the concerns, but not with a traffic light. Their plan is to build a roundabout.

According to traffic studies, a roundabout “will perform better than a traffic signal,” Chickering wrote, adding that “the overall number of crashes would not be reduced by installation of a traffic signal.”

The plan already has skeptics.

“Those roundabouts are a headache,” said Ron Garcia, a “big-rig driver” who has lived in the Forest Grove/Cornelius area for more than 40 years and does not like the two roundabouts that were installed on Northwest Verboort Road in 2003 at its intersections with Northwest Martin Road and Northwest Cornelius-Schefflin Road.

“I don’t go that way anymore,” said Garcia, who now uses Northwest Susbauer Road to avoid the roundabouts on his way to Highway 26.

Garcia and others will have the chance to voice their opinions at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 23, during a town hall meeting in Forest Grove’s community auditorium, 1915 Main Street.

Starr, Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax and state Sen. Betsy Johnson will be joined by Chickering and ODOT Area Manager Larry McKinley, who will outline the proposed safety improvements and time frames.

Starr acknowledged Garcia’s concerns, including his feelings that the Verboort roundabouts are too small for 18-wheelers, and said the Oregon Trucking Association would have a voice in how the Highway 47 roundabout looks and works.

According to Washington County Land Use and Transportation spokesman Stephen Roberts, roundabouts might not completely stop crashes, but due to their slowing effect, they have “a pretty significant effect on the severity.”

From January 2008 to July 2013, for example, there were six total crashes at the Verboort -Martin roundabout, with only three injuries, all minor, according to ODOT spokesman Lou Torres.

The Verboort-Cornelius/Schefflin roundabout saw 10 crashes, with four injuries, all minor.

“Typically, when you do have accidents, they’re low-speed, kind of sideswipes or rear-enders,” Torres said.

Chickering said he will ask the Oregon Transportation Commission at its mid-May meeting to fund preliminary engineering design work for the Highway 47 roundabout.

Construction costs would be another matter.

“Our preliminary estimate for a single lane roundabout is $3M to $5M,” Chickering wrote. “My staff will complete a new traffic analysis to determine whether a single or multi-lane roundabout will be required to accommodate future (traffic) volumes.” A larger roundabout could increase the cost by 30 to 50 percent, he wrote.

ODOT would work with partners to find funding, Chickering told Starr, but “This is an area where your advocacy could be of considerable help.”

Starr said he and Johnson had talked about funding and “I believe we can work together, specifically in the next legislative session to find the $3 to $5 million to build this.”

If everything proceeded smoothly, Chickering wrote, “a construction contract could be awarded in 2015.”

The only other roundabout on a state highway in ODOT’s Region 2 is in Astoria, Torres said. It’s a busy, two-lane roundabout, funneling people on and off the Astoria-Megler bridge, but it functions well, he said.

“Like anything that’s new, people are going to be a little skeptical about it,” Torres said, “but roundabouts are becoming more common.”

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