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Navigating the streets of Durango

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Trains from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad cross the intersection of Camino del Rio and Main Avenue various times a day. This is one of the busiest intersections in town that puts travelers on foot and by motor in one place at one time.

By Shane Benjamin Herald staff writer

For decades, the city’s road system has been geared toward one form of transportation: the automobile.

More recently, Durango traffic planners have begun to consider other modes of transport, including bicycles and foot travel.

But retrofitting the existing infrastructure has not been easy.

Traffic engineers have introduced a number of new traffic devices aimed at creating a more harmonious relationship among all modes of transportation.

Some of these have proved successful, while others have caused more confusion than functionality.

Mike Smedley, a Durango Herald columnist who answers readers’ questions, said the number of letters he receives about new traffic devices is “only exceeded by the number of new traffic devices that we have.”

“At one point we had red, yellow and green,” he said. “Now we’ve got a Chinese menu of choices, and I think there’s a paralysis going on here.”

He added: “There have been a ton of newfangled devices introduced. I think people can instinctively handle one or two, but it has been a constant drubbing of exceptions, modifications and all sorts of nonstandard things.”

Is it possible Durango has become a testing ground for new traffic devices? Are we guinea pigs for the rest of the nation?

While some devices are very new, Mike McVaugh, a traffic engineer for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said all have been tested and approved in other locations.

“We’re trying to do things,” he said. “We’re trying to get things better. It just takes time. We’re experimenting with things, playing and tweaking.”

Inside today’s edition of the Herald, we examine some of the more unique traffic functions that make up Durango’s transportation network.

Flashing red? Stop, then go

Pedestrians and bicyclists love the new signaled crosswalk at 12th Street and Camino del Rio. But drivers are still trying to figure it out.

The light, called a HAWK – for high-intensity activated crosswalk – was installed late last summer by the Colorado Department of Transportation.

When a pedestrian pushes a button on either side of Camino del Rio, yellow lights start to flash for drivers coming from both directions. The flashing yellow lights then turn solid, which is an indication to drivers to clear the intersection. The yellow lights then switch to solid red lights, which is treated the same as a stoplight. After several seconds, the red lights switch to two oscillating red lights, which allow drivers to treat the intersection as a stop sign if pedestrians have cleared the crosswalk.

This last cycle has cause caused confusion for some drivers, said Mike McVaugh, traffic engineer for CDOT.

“When it starts flashing red, that means the driver can proceed through the intersection after stopping if the intersection is clear,” he said. “Well, most of them sit and wait through the signal until it goes black.”

CDOT has ordered signs to help drivers better understand the intersection. The signs will read: “Yield on flashing red after stop.”

McVaugh said the HAWK signal was first developed in Arizona and is used widely in Tucson. Traffic engineers say it gets far better compliance from motorists than flashing beacons.

Pedestrians and bicyclists said they like it because it is quick to activate and it stops traffic in its tracks.

“I love this intersection,” said Debra Swanson, who uses the crosswalk a couple of times a day to go to and from work. “Before, you were taking your life into your hands. This is just reliable. People stop.”

Courtney Wolf said she used to take the Ninth Street Bridge and used the light at Camino del Rio, which was a hassle.

“We totally changed our route,” she said. “We come this way.”

Judy Duke, who lives on Falcon Heights in west Durango, said she feels bad activating the crosswalk signal.

“I hate to push it because I feel like I’m stopping so much traffic,” she said. “On the other hand, I’m not taking my life into my own hands.”

Leap frog, anyone?

Pedestrians who use the lighted crosswalk at Seventh Street and Camino del Rio said it is scary, dangerous and “a little intimidating,” but it’s better than nothing.

“I’m chicken to use that crosswalk,” said Gerry Cunnius, a staff member at Southwest Colorado Community College at 701 Camino del Rio. “I’ve had two people tell me that their backpacks have been clipped while they’re still in the crosswalk. That’s scary!”

The signal was installed mid-summer in 2011 to help students at the community college more safely cross the busy four-lane Camino del Rio.

Traffic engineers call it a “rapid rectangular-flashing beacon.” It cost about $15,000, with the city picking up the cost for infrastructure and the Colorado Department of Transportation agreeing to install it and maintain it.

Here’s how it works: A pedestrian pushes a button on either side of Camino del Rio and yellow caution lights flash to inform drivers of a pedestrian in the crosswalk.

But students and faculty at the college said drivers do not always stop for the caution lights, and some never see the lights or pedestrians.

Marty Dyer, a science and math teacher, said drivers in the outside lanes will see the lighted signs on the side of the road, but drivers on the inside lanes don’t see the lights because they are obscured by vehicles on the outside.

Some drivers aren’t aware that pedestrians have the right of way, she said. Some have honked at her or flipped her off while she’s crossing the road.

“I’ve been close to being wiped out because people try to beat you through it or just don’t get it – that it means stop,” Dyer said. “It’s certainly better than nothing, but it’s still not great.”

Durango police officer Ron Wysocki said the signal works well, for the most part, but there have been some rear-end accidents when drivers stop suddenly for pedestrians.

“That’s always been an issue since that light has been installed,” Wysocki said. “That’s motorists following too close and not paying attention.”

Students said they’d prefer a signal similar to the one at 12th Street and Camino del Rio, which stops traffic completely with a red light while pedestrians cross.

But the location doesn’t tie in with the trail system and the rapid rectangular flashing beacon was significantly cheaper, said Mike McVaugh, a traffic engineer with CDOT.

The signal is solar powered and communicates from one side of the road to the other via a radio link, which means no money was spent running wires underground, he said.

Like driving a boat

The road that cuts through Town Plaza isn’t a road at all; rather, it’s a private parking lot, said City Engineer Gregg Boysen.

Drivers routinely use the expanse of pavement as if it were part of 11th Street between Main Avenue and Camino del Rio, he said.

The city hasn’t done anything to control traffic movement through the parking lot because it is private property. So drivers are largely left to their own devices: They can go right, left, straight, backward or in circles to get to where they are going.

The city has approached the owners of Town Plaza about acquiring a right of way to build a street that meets city standards, but the owners have so far been reluctant because they don’t want to lose any parking, Boysen said.

“That was always their biggest concern,” he said. “We just haven’t gotten an agreement from the property owner.”

The owners recently installed a three-way stop sign and painted street-like lines to help guide traffic.

“I think it’s functioning,” Boysen said. “Is it something the city would have done? I don’t think so.”

Parking lots are statistically one of the most likely places to have an accident, said Durango police Officer Ron Wysocki.

The Town Plaza parking lot is particularly dangerous because it is congested and drivers treat it like a thoroughfare between Main Avenue and Camino del Rio, he said.

“That’s a heavy-traffic area, even for a parking lot,” he said.

Do the dance

The pedestrian crossing at Main Avenue and College Drive is called a Barnes Dance, named after Henry Barnes, an American traffic engineer who invented numerous traffic devices still in use today.

The lighted intersection stops all vehicular traffic in all directions to allow pedestrians to cross in any direction, including diagonally.

Lighted signs read: “No right turn on red.”

The city installed the signal during summer 2010 to better accommodate the high volume of pedestrian traffic in the area, said City Engineer Gregg Boysen.

“It seems to be working really well,” he said.

Pedestrians don’t activate the crosswalk; rather, a 30-second pedestrian crossing is built into every cycle of the light. So when there are no pedestrians – including at 4 a.m. – cars must wait for pedestrians.

Durango police Officer Rob Haukeness called the intersection “one of my pet peeves.”

Drivers don’t always see the lighted signs that read “no right turn on red.” Instead, they look left for approaching traffic and then make a right turn when all is clear.

He wonders why the city didn’t install a green, yellow and red turn arrow, which is more common at intersections trying to achieve the same effect.

“Why we did it this way, I don’t know,” he said.

Boysen said the city didn’t install a crosswalk button or set the pedestrian crossing on a timer because he wanted to make it consistent for drivers.

“We take the guessing out of that intersection,” he said. “If it weren’t such a pedestrian-heavy intersection, we might have considered different timing on the signal.”

Flashing yellow arrows

The Colorado Department of Transportation last year equipped 18 intersections, or 36 left-turn lanes, with flashing yellow arrows.

The arrows allow drivers to turn left while yielding to oncoming traffic. But during high traffic volume, the signals are programed to allow left turns only when there is a green arrow. This is called a protected left turn, which is considered safer than yielding to oncoming traffic.

The flashing yellow arrows are installed at intersections from north Main Avenue to Elmore’s Corner (U.S. Highway 160 and Colorado Highway 172), said Mike McVaugh, CDOT traffic engineer.

They have caused some drivers to stop and scratch their heads.

“It’s very new,” McVaugh said.

But the technology has been tested for seven to eight years across the nation, he said, and it has been adopted as an acceptable traffic-control device.

The number of flashing yellow arrows installed last year in Durango doubled the number being used by CDOT across the state, McVaugh said.

“I felt it would be better to do it at a whole bunch of intersections so you see it regularly everywhere,” he said. “I wanted to make it more of a corridor change. Sometimes bigger changes are easier than little, incremental steps.”

He would like to introduce the lights next to Pagosa Springs and Cortez, he said.

The death ride?

Anthony Rodriguez, who lives west of Durango High School, rides his bike on north Main Avenue several times a day to commute to his jobs at Carver Brewing Co. and Steamworks Brewing Co. But with no bike lanes, it is a challenge to avoid curbs, gutters and cars, he said.

“You have to be alert at all times, because it’s dangerous,” Rodriguez said last week while biking on north Main. “I’ve almost been hit a couple of times.

“(Some drivers) look at me like I’m the spawn of Satan,” he added.

The Colorado Department of Transportation has been monitoring the number of bicyclists riding on north Main Avenue for the past two years, said Mike McVaugh, a traffic engineer.

The department is considering restriping the road between 17th Street and Animas View Drive to reduce the width of some lanes and make room for a shoulder lane, which would provide cyclists with some refuge, he said.

“We’ve got a little extra room on the roadway,” he said. “If there was a simple way to make it safer for bikes, I would have already done it.”

A sensor embedded in the road near the Boys & Girls Club of La Plata County, 2750 Main Ave., has counted an average of 32 bicycle movements per day, McVaugh said. More specifically, it counts 40 to 60 cyclists per day during the summer months and zero to 20 cyclists during the winter months.

North Main handles 30,000 to 40,000 traffic movements per day during peak summer months, McVaugh said.

“It’s just a highly, highly active road,” he said.

In the meantime, bicyclists must decide whether it’s worth the risk to ride on north Main.

“I try to stick to the bike path when there’s traffic,” said Zak Fleming, who rides a bike regularly during the summer months. “It seems like a lot of people from out of town don’t understand it’s three feet for bikes.”

Speed trap

East 32nd Street from Main Avenue to Holly Avenue is wide, straight and newly paved – a perfect place to put the pedal to the metal.

It is also a notorious speed trap.

Police love to patrol this stretch of road for drives who exceed the 25 mph speed limit.

So why the low speed limit?

Despite the road’s thoroughfare status, it is also a residential street, said Durango police officer Ron Wysocki.

The speed limit used to be higher, but then residents who live on the road petitioned to have it reduced, which it was. More recently, residents have asked the City Council to increase the speed limit, which was denied.

Spin me round

The European phenomena known as the roundabout has arrived in Durango.

The city has approved at least six of the circular intersections within the last 10 years, including one on the newly reconstructed Florida Road.

“Other than the initial getting used to it, I haven’t heard anyone complaining about it,” said City Engineer Gregg Boysen. “It allows traffic to get off of Riverview and onto Florida Road much more efficiently than when it used to be a stop condition on Riverview.”

Durango police Officer Ron Wysocki agreed, but said drivers still complain about the Florida Road roundabout.

During the morning commute, drivers on Riverview have a hard time getting into the roundabout, he said. They complain that drivers don’t yield, but drivers already in the roundabout aren’t required to yield, Wysocki said.

Other roundabouts include one on Goeglein Gulch Road and four in the SkyRidge subdivision.

Wysocki said some drivers still don’t get it. Last year, someone asked an officer to help control traffic at the roundabout near Fort Lewis College.

“It’s hard for law enforcement to direct traffic on a roundabout,” he said, laughing. “They’re self-controlled.”

Dysfunction Junction

One good way to spot a tourist on Main Avenue is to look for someone wearing shorts, a tucked-in shirt and a fanny pack.

But what about behind the wheel of a car?

In addition to looking for out-of-state license plates, drivers can see how others react to the intersection at 15th Street, East Third Avenue and Florida Road.

Drivers have been known to freeze as they deliberate over who has the right of way.

“Being local, you get used to it,” said Durango police officer Ron Wysocki. “If you’re from out-of-town, it might be confusing just because you don’t know, ‘Do I have the right of way? Who has the right of way?’”

The city has hired at least three consultants to study alternatives for the confluence, but all have come back with the same conclusion: What is in place now is the best solution.

“That intersection always has been difficult, to say the least,” said Gregg Boysen, city engineer.

The city can’t install a stoplight, because the steepness of 15th Street would cause drivers to become stuck during the winter, he said.

And a roundabout wouldn’t work, he said, because it would take too much real estate that the city doesn’t have; and the slope would limit visibility.

The city added pedestrian islands about 18 months ago during the reconstruction of Florida Road, which has helped add some clarity for drivers, Boysen said.

“It always was a confusing intersection,” he said, “and we’ve improved it a little bit.”

Stop! It’s the law

In Colorado, pedestrians have the right of way.

The city began reminding drivers of the law several years ago by installing signs in the middle of the road up and down Main Avenue and East Second Avenue.

At first, the signs were wiped out by cars or snowplows. But as of late, the signs have enjoyed some staying power.

They read: “State law, (a picture of a stop sign) for (a picture of a pedestrian) within crosswalk.”

The signs have recently been adopted as a uniform traffic control device by the transportation department, said Gregg Boysen, city engineer.

“Those are really mostly for the tourists,” he said. “It’s just to remind the tourists that it is a state law that you need to stop for pedestrians in the intersection. I’ve seen a number of people stop, even when there weren’t pedestrians there. They’re real attention-getters. They seem to be working as intended.”

Do the merge

Colorado Highway 3 used to be the only road leading into Durango from the south.

But then the Durango Mall and Bodo Industrial Park came along, and the Colorado Department of Transportation improved the corridor with what is known today as the High Bridge and South Camino del Rio.

Highway 3 remains in use, and when motorists aren’t dodging fallen rocks from a steep cliffside, they can make a left turn onto South Camino del Rio.

When Walmart came to Durango in about 1997, drivers soon learned they could save a few precious seconds by cutting across two lanes of traffic and sliding into the northern entrance to Walmart, near the La Plata County Humane Society, said Mike McVaugh, traffic engineer with the Colorado Department of Transportation.

“Sometimes, you miss the boat on things,” McVaugh said. “Nobody anticipated that someone would actually try to go from Highway 3 to that right-in, right-out at the Humane Society.”

CDOT tried to stop drivers from merging across the busy highway by installing delineator posts.

“We still had people weaving through there, and we still had people trying to cut across that,” McVaugh said.

In addition, cars and snowplows would hit the delineators and wipe them out, he said.

So about 1½ years ago, CDOT extended a curb in the merge lane that forces motorists to drive past the first Walmart entrance or risk a blown tire or more serious problem. The raised curb also has delineator posts.

“Motorists don’t want to run into it, because they know they might blow a tire or knock their alignment out,” McVaugh said. “And the plows don’t hit the delineators any more, because they can run along the curb.”

Durango police officer Ron Wysocki said the revamped merge lane seems to be working.

“We’re not seeing anyone making that cut anymore,” he said. “I’m glad they did that.”

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