Michigan is coming to southwest Spokane with the installation of a “J-turn” on U.S. Highway 195.
The new road design, known as the “Michigan left,” will prevent drivers from making left turns onto or off Thorpe Road and is yet another effort by the Washington State Department of Transportation to make the increasingly busy road safer.
When the $1.46 million project is complete, a median barrier will be installed on the highway, blocking Thorpe drivers from crossing traffic and potentially being T-boned by opposing traffic. Instead, motorists will have to turn right onto the highway, merge into the left lane and make a U-turn from a turning lane. These so-called “restricted crossing U-turn” lanes will be installed on each side of the median barrier.
The median also will prevent drivers on the highway from turning directly onto Thorpe, and they will also have to make U-turns to reach the road.
Chad Simonson, the project’s engineer, said the new design “reduces accidents for the least amount of money.”
From 2011 to 2015, there were 28 collisions at the Thorpe intersection. Of those, 21 led to injuries or deaths. The Federal Highway Administration has reported that 75% of “access-related” collisions on highways are due to left turns. Most of the collisions at Thorpe are attributed to left turns, Simonson said.
The worst of them came in 2015, when a PT Cruiser heading east on Thorpe made a left turn onto the highway and was struck by a motorist driving a Dodge pickup northbound on 195. Three women sitting in the PT Cruiser’s back seat were killed. The Washington State Patrol determined that the crash was caused by the driver of the PT Cruiser failing to yield to the pickup.
The state also has made other changes to improve safety along the corridor.
Last month, WSDOT installed a ramp meter on 195’s on-ramp to I-90, one of the most collision-prone interchanges on the I-90 corridor in Spokane. The meter delays motorists by four to 15 seconds before letting them merge with the interstate’s traffic. By creating space between vehicles, ramp meters have not only proved to reduce collisions by 30%, but also help to alleviate the “shock wave” caused by a line of cars attempting to merge with an already dense collection of vehicles on the freeway.
In 2014, the state built a $9.4 million overpass and interchange where Cheney-Spokane Road meets 195, following a collision that killed 16-year-old Cheney High School student Lorissa Green in 2009.
An overpass at the Thorpe intersection similar to the one at Cheney-Spokane Road had been discussed, but was scuttled due to the estimated cost of $16 million to $20 million.
“The overpass idea is still the ultimate design case,” Simonson said. “When traffic gets to a point when it’s bad enough, the best solution is an overpass.”
With the new J-turn infrastructure, expect the usual grousing from inconvenienced drivers – grumbling that happens even in Michigan, where the “often maligned” turn originated nearly 60 years ago.
According to MichiganHighways.org, an independently run website, the Michigan left is “often maligned, often misunderstood” and “causes much consternation among out-of-state drivers and nary a second thought from locals.”
Pointing to information in Stanley Lingeman’s 1996 out-of-print book, “The State of Michigan Trunk Line Story,” the website said the Michigan left was devised after Detroiters began driving in greater numbers following World War II. A “super highway” that had been built along Telegraph Avenue in Wayne County in the 1920s was crippled with traffic congestion. In 1960, traffic engineers came up with the Michigan left maneuver and, after a few years of tweaking, it remains largely how it was conceived.
The Michigan Department of Transportation says the design has reduced collisions by 30% to 60% overall, and decreased rear-end and head-on crashes during left-turns by 60% to 90%. The state also said the Michigan left reduces congestion.
U.S. Highway 195 has an average of 21,000 vehicles a day, according to the most recent data from WSDOT. In 2009, the road carried an average of 16,000 vehicles a day, which means the highway has seen a 30% increase in traffic in less than a decade. Between 1,800 and 2,500 cars a day use Thorpe on either side of the highway, according to the city of Spokane.
Three other intersections on the busiest stretch of the highway – at Hatch Road, Meadowlane Road and 16th Avenue – may also get improvements, if costs allow.
The intersection at 16th was supposed to be part of the Thorpe project, but was left out due to cost. Simonson said WSDOT is “still actively looking at solutions.” A Michigan left also is proposed for Meadowlane in the future, again when funding becomes available.
Hatch is the trickiest of the intersections, Simonson said, due to its terrain.
“It’s a difficulty for any solution we look at,” he said.
But the main problem for improving all of them is funding.
Thorpe was ranked as one of the highest accident locations in WSDOT’s Eastern Region, making it a contender for funding. But in the statewide list, Thorpe didn’t even make the top 50, Simonson said.
“When people say we need to fix our problems, we do need to fix our problems, but statewide it didn’t even reach the top 50,” he said, adding that legislators and others who make spending decisions have to balance big projects with small. “Do you buy 10 steaks or 100 hamburgers?”
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