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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Traffic safety vote divides Spokane Valley council

Spokane Valley is adding a second lefthand turn lane at Thierman Road onto Sprague Avenue despite warnings from traffic engineers and others that it would increase the risk of sideswipe collisions.

In a 4-3 split vote, the City Council on Tuesday decided to proceed with the $14,000 plan to convert the inside northbound lane to a turn-only lane and give motorists in the outside lane the option of either making a left turn onto Sprague as well or continuing through the intersection. It’s described as a way of helping ease potential traffic buildup at the intersection and is expected to be completed later this year.

But the change also could create new risks, in part because the turn-only lane will force motorists into a westbound Sprague lane that quickly becomes part of an Interstate 90 onramp, which engineers call a “trap lane,” and could prompt sudden lane changes among those who didn’t intend to get on the freeway.

National crash statistics indicate the number of collisions at the intersection could increase up to 41 percent under the reconfiguration, according to documents prepared by the city’s traffic division.

Councilmen Bill Bates, who said he saw no congestion during the time he spent monitoring the intersection, and Chuck Hafner questioned why their colleagues want to proceed with a plan that the city’s own traffic division advises would decrease safety. They suggested following the city staff’s recommendation to add a flashing yellow turn signal at the intersection to move traffic along more quickly and then spend the next eight to 12 months evaluating conditions, which Councilman Ben Wick also supported.

“We’re not in a crisis right now at that intersection in my mind,” Bates said. “We’ve got some time.”

But the council’s four other members disagreed.

Mayor Dean Grafos said the Valley has five other intersections with dual-turn lane configurations and no one has raised safety concerns about them.

“To me, this is a main gateway into the city … and most people on that part of Thierman are looking to make a left there at Sprague,” said Grafos, who has sought the change for at least three years. “We’ve got these all over the Valley and wherever you have those dual turn lanes people just need to be more careful.”

Deputy Mayor Arne Woodard and councilmen Rod Higgins and Ed Pace joined Grafos in supporting the reconfiguration.

It marks the second time since August that the council, in a divided vote, has rejected staff recommendations designed to improve traffic safety.

Last month, the council decided to leave South University Road as a four-lane arterial, reversing an earlier decision to adopt the city staff’s recommendation to seek traffic safety grants to pay for reducing it to three lanes, with a middle turn lane. The proposed reconfiguration would have enabled the city to provide wider lanes of travel, including wider dedicated bicycle lanes, which also would have provided space for snow to be piled when plowing roads after winter storms.

But it also would have increased travel times during certain periods of the day.