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Highway 95

TSAB wants to stick with TDOT’s speed limits

The Traffic Safety Advisory Board held a long and thoughtful discussion of the west Turnpike speed limits, deciding to recommend sticking with the TDOT limits, but continue to monitor the situation.

Based on the 85th percentile speeds, city engineer Steve Byrd opined that the 50 mph limit is appropriate for the section that has that limit, as the the 85th percentile driver is going about 3 to 7 miles above the limit.

In the 40-mph section, the 85th percentile speed is about 13 mph above the speed limit, suggesting that a higher limit would be right for the road. However, there are concerns about setting a speed limit that is higher than the road’s official design speed, which is stated to be 40 mph in that section, where there are 5 lanes and no median. Also, board members commented about the presence of Girls Inc. and other youth programs on that section of the Turnpike that produce a lot of turning-vehicle activity at certain times of day. They expressed concern about the possibility of accidents — and liabilities if the speed limit is set higher than the official design speed. However, it seems to be agreed that the redesigned road in that section is safer than it used to be and that the road’s physical alignment is consistent with a 60-mph road (which helps explain why so many people are driving so far over the limit).

There was some sympathy for creating a consistent speed limit, but desire for speed limits that fit the road was stronger, leading to the recommendation to keep the TDOT limits. Regarding consistency of speed limits, Steve Byrd provided the information that after completion of the current construction on Hwy 95 west of this section, the 45 mph speed limit is supposed to remain in place for the 5-lane section of road, which will extend to  a short distance west of Southwood Lane. At that point, the median will begin and the speed limit will be 55 mph until the K-25 site area, where it drops back down to 45 mph.

In response to my comments about determining speed based on the road’s context, the professional traffic engineers in the room told me that this needs to be done before the road is designed, because once a road is built its characteristics will largely determine traffic speed.

One of the context issues is bicycles. TSAB members noted that the 50 mph limit means that many people will choose to drive about 60 mph, and there was concern expressed about the safety of bike lane users on such a fast road. Steve Byrd pointed out that the bike lanes are part of a standard TDOT road design (which suggests that someone judges them to be safe, even though they run alongside fast traffic). He said that he is not aware of guidelines on setting speed limits for roads next to bike lanes.

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Turnpike speed limits again

They’re back (west Oak Ridge Turnpike speed limits, that is)! The Traffic Safety Advisory Board (TSAB) discusses them at its meeting Tuesday evening at 7 pm. The city engineer has conducted motorist speed surveys and is recommending that the city not make any adjustments to the state’s speed limits.

How we got to this point
In December, City Council enacted a change in the city speed limit ordinance for this road segment. After opposing the change in the first round of two votes on the proposal, I supported it in November and December, after discovering that I’d been working under a misconception. A bit contrary to what the November 17th Oak Ridger reported, my misconception (which appears to have been shared by other Council members and many citizens) was to think that City Council has any discretion in choosing a speed limit on the west Turnpike.

We were all wrong. That road is a state highway. Under Tennessee law, the speed limit for a state highway is set by the state. TDOT didn’t give the city a “recommendation” on an appropriate speed limit for the Turnpike following construction – instead, TDOT set the new limit. Regardless of any City Council action on speed limit, the posted speed limits were legally enforceable by both city police and the state highway patrol. Confusion developed because of the city ordinance that lists speed limits for every street in the city. For most city streets, City Council legally sets the limits, but for state highways it merely coordinates the city speed limit with the state’s legal limits — unless the city has done its own traffic engineering study that supports different limits, in which case the city can change the state’s limit. Since City Council periodically is asked to vote to change speed limits for both state highways and city streets, members had the impression that the City Council had authority to make decisions on speed limits on all of those streets.

I’ve asked why Oak Ridge even bothers to have a city ordinance that duplicates state law. Staff has explained that it is beneficial to the police to be able to ticket a speeder under a city ordinance because challenges to city tickets are heard in city court. This means police officers don’t need to take as much time away from patrol as if had to go to the courthouse in Clinton or Kingston. City tickets also carry a smaller fine, which is a small benefit for speeders.

When City Council voted to make the city speed limit ordinance match state law, it was with the expectation that the city’s professional engineering staff would do a traffic engineering study soon. (The city’s professional engineering staff has done several of these studies during my three years on Council, and the Council adjusted a few speed limits based on their findings.) That’s happened, and their report is what TSAB considers on Tuesday.

Why I’ve been concerned about the posted speed limits
My experience as a motorist leads me to think that the fluctuating speed limits that TDOT posted on the west Turnpike are confusing. It violates the “keep it simple” of safety communications (and leads to allegations of a “speed trap” situation) when there are several different speed limits in a short distance. It is particularly un-simple when (as is the case on this road) a westbound driver is allowed to speed up to 50 mph while traveling through a settled area, then must slow down to 45 mph just when the road seems to be leaving “town” behind (or vice versa, then the eastbound driver is allowed to speed up a little just as the population density starts to increase. Also, the new TDOT-specified speed limits were based on the physical geometry of the road (things like curvature and sight distance) and do not consider the context of the roadway (things like business entrances, driveways, street intersections, and pedestrians). I was hoping for the traffic engineering study to address not only road geometry, but also these types of “context” factors, which are important to the safety and well-being of Oak Ridge citizens and visitors. While the road geometry clearly supports speeds of 50 mph (or higher), it’s not clear to me that this speed (which we know will be interpreted as “up to 60 mph”) is appropriate for an area where people live, make turns in and out of local businesses and side streets (not to mention residential driveways!), and where we’d like more people to ride their bikes in the new bike lanes and walk on the new sidewalks (as of now bicyclists say they don’t feel safe in the bike lanes). (Consideration of “context” is consistent with the principles of “context-sensitive planning” that TDOT has embraced in recent years — but not at the time over 10 years ago when they designed this particular road project.) Also, I’d rather see a consistent speed limit than one that fluctuates, and 45 mph seems like a good choice if the goal is consistency.

What the staff report says
The staff report says that the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) provides guidance on setting speed limits “and states that speed zones shall be established in accordance with traffic engineering practices and shall include analysis of the current speed distribution of free-flowing vehicles.” After a construction project is completed, it says “the road can be analyzed through speed studies to determine if changes are needed to the posted speed limits. Some of the speed study factors to be considered include the 85th percentile speed, vehicle crash experience, pedestrian/bicycle volume, traffic volumes and adjacent land development, if significant changes have occurred since construction.”

Staff measured speeds at three spots during December and January weekday mornings (9 to 11 a.m.) with dry weather — a period of “free flow”. East of Jefferson Avenue in the 40 mph zone, the 85th percentile speed (meaning 85% of traffic is slower and 15% is higher) was 53.3 mph eastbound and 52.5 mph westbound. In the 50 mph zone, the 85th percentile was traveling at 57.8 eastbound and 58.8 westbound near Bermuda Road and at 53.4 eastbound and 57.5 westbound near the Roane-Anderson County line. Unsurprisingly, given the time of day, time of year, and the newness of the bike lanes and sidewalks, there weren’t enough bikes and walkers to bother counting them.

Staff notes that the measured 85th percentile speeds were about 13 mph above the posted speed in the 40 mph zone and 3 and 9 mph above the posted speed in the 50 mph zone. Because 40 mph is the design speed for the first segment and because “MUTCD guidelines recommend that the posted speed limit be set at or 5 mph below the 85th percentile speed,” staff is recommending that the TDOT speed limits should be kept in both segments.

Closing thoughts
I’m still concerned about the inconsistency in speed — and about my perception that the 50 mph speed is more consistent with an expressway than with an urban street. Clearly, Oak Ridge Turnpike has some aspects of both of these types of roads. However, after TDOT went to the expense of building bike lanes and sidewalks (having rejected the city’s 1997 request to separate these features from the roadway), I’d like for people to feel safe enough to use them, and I’m not at all sure that a 50 mph speed limit does that.

I’ll be interested in seeing how the TSAB members address this Tuesday evening. They are a thoughtful bunch with many valuable perspectives on traveling Oak Ridge’s streets.

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Who recommended the Turnpike speed limits?

Orange safety cones at edge of highway

New permanent signs will be a welcome change from orange cones.

I was out of town for a couple of days, and I’m catching up with news.  WATE-TV reported that the Tennessee Dept of Transportation didn’t recommend those speed limits, after all. A TDOT spokesman said that the Oak Ridge city government (not TDOT) has the authority to establish speed limits on this road. The most puzzling part of the report is this quoted statement by a TDOT spokesperson:

“Last week, the city called our operations specialist supervisor to request we lower the speed limit on these two stretches of road in question. TDOT has explained that the city has the authority to establish the speed limit. TDOT did not recommend changing the speed limits on SR-95.”

I learned a long time ago not to believe everything I read in the media. News media reports are mostly accurate, but they often contain mistakes. Still, this confusing report strengthens my view that the most sensible choice (at least for now) is to keep the current 45 mph limit.

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Speed limit(s) on west Oak Ridge Turnpike

Oak Ridge Turnpike project in 2008 -- before the trees came do

Construction has been going on so long, it's hard to remember when it started.

As Friday’s paper reported, City Council has been asked to approve new speed limits for west Oak Ridge Turnpike (SR 95) — to take effect after TDOT’s seemingly interminable widening project is finished. This portends  an end to the construction that we west end residents have endured  for the last 2-1/4 years (reportedly, TDOT has bought the new signs and is ready to put them in the ground), but I think the new limits recommended by TDOT don’t make sense, and I want to share the full story of my concerns.

Currently, city ordinances set the speed limit at 45 mph on Oak Ridge Turnpike from Illinois Avenue west to a point 200 ft west of Rarity Oaks Parkway (about 1 mile west of Wisconsin Avenue), where it increases to 55 mph. (Yes, many of us always thought the 35 mph speed limit applied west to a point somewhere around  Jefferson or Louisiana Ave., but the ordinance says the 45 mph limit starts at Illinois Ave.)

The proposal would replace that single speed limit with four different limits in  a few miles’ distance:

  • 35 mph for the first 1300 ft west of Illinois Avenue (to a point just before the first entrance to the South Hills Garden Apartments)
  • 40 mph for the next 2/3 mile or so, to a point 700 west of Jefferson Avenue
  • 50 mph for about 3-1/4 miles west of that spot, to a point 380 ft west of Oklahoma Ave.
  • 45 mph west from there to that point 200 ft west of Rarity Oaks Parkway

This proposal was discussed at a City Council work session on September 7 and was voted on at the Council meeting on September 13, so it seemed like old news to me by the time it hit the newspaper on September 17, but it’s not law until it has passed on second reading, which is scheduled for October 11. As the newspaper reported, I spoke against the change and voted against it (Anne Garcia Garland also voted against the proposal, which passed 5-2 on first reading). Here are some specific concerns I presented at the meeting:

  • Frequent changes in speed limits can be confusing to drivers, who may not see all of the signs giving notice of different limits.
  • 50 mph seems too high for safety in view of the number of businesses, residences, and street intersections along the roadway that require turning movements; plus the new sidewalks and on-street bike lanes that are being created as part of the project
  • It is particularly illogical (and confusing) to lower the speed limit (from 55 to 45 mph)  for drivers entering town from the west, then raise it again (to 50 mph) where the road enters a more congested area
  • The closeness of the road to many homes is also a concern

I pointed out that just last year the City Council had heard from residents living near Hwy 95 on Southwood and Sweetgum Lanes (west of the gatehouse, near Wisconsin Ave.) who were concerned about safety for residents and noise from the roadway, particularly after completion of the TDOT project to widen that section from 2 lanes to 4. We discussed the fact that highway noise is much greater at 55 mph than at 45. After considering the residents’ concerns and receiving a report from the city engineer on his evaluation of the situation, City Council voted to lower the speed limit near their homes from 55 mph to 45 mph.

After that action last year, it seems incongruous to be talking now about raising the speed limit on a section of the same road that is closer to more homes, has higher traffic counts, has many more turning movements associated with intersections and driveways, and will have sidewalks (adjacent to the curb) and on-highway bike lanes that will expose pedestrians to traffic. It would be inconsistent to set the limit at 50 mph on this section if the city decided that 45 was the right speed to protect the public welfare on a section with fewer potential safety and noise issues. (Not only are some residents closer to the road in this section than on Sweetgum or Southwood Lanes, but because their homes are uphill from the roadway, they receive more road noise than the downhill homes on those “S” Lanes. Also, unlike the “S” Lanes, residents in some west end neighborhoods who had long been buffered from road noise by wooded areas were not informed that they would lose those trees until after TDOT’s contractors started clearcutting.)

At first I intended to proposed an amendment to the proposal to simplify it by specifying just two speed limits: 35 mph in the areas where TDOT recommended 35 or 40, then 45 in the areas recommended as 45 or 50. However, I abandoned that idea after seeing the level of opposition by city staff. Due to past litigation about speed limits, city staff doesn’t want to change speed limits without doing an engineering evaluation first, and it has been suggested that the evaluation can’t be done until after the completed project is open to traffic. Considering that the new road configuration will be only slightly different from the 4-lane configuration that existed before the project (in spite of the long project schedule, the only substantial changes are addition of a median and those bike lanes and sidewalks), I believe that  the city has all the necessary data for an evaluation now (notably, the engineer has many years of traffic counts and knows the physical layout of the road, including intersections and driveways). Reportedly, TDOT’s recommendation is based only on physical design of the road — things like grades, curve radii, and sight distances. If TDOT engineers can make recommendations on that basis before construction is complete, surely an Oak Ridge engineer can look at that same information, along with factors like turning traffic at businesses and residential driveways, and make an even better recommendation before the reconfigured road reopens.

I think there is ample time to do an evaluation before the Oct. 11 second reading of the proposed new ordinance. However, if no new study is going to be done, I think the next best plan is simply to keep the 45 mph speed limit that’s on the books now. Accordingly, I voted against the proposed new speed limits.

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The next phase of the Turnpike (Hwy 95) widening

People are griping (for example, on the new Sustain Oak Ridge Google group) about the Hwy 95 widening projects (the ongoing one from Illinois Ave. to Westover Drive and the next phase from Westover Drive to the Hwy 58 interchange).  These are not City of Oak Ridge projects, but are Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) projects (when complaining about public issues, it’s useful to know which unit of government you have an issue with), and it’s clear that the city has little influence over the way TDOT designs and builds its road projects. However, there has been strong city support for completing both of these projects, as they have been on the books for a very long time and they will not only eliminate some hazards but will also result in extending new utility lines (such as water mains) to the west end of the city, including Rarity Oaks, K-25, and Rarity Ridge.

One thing I’m concerned right now is the design for the next phase. This is a high-priority “shovel-ready” economic stimulus project, based on TDOT design work that was completed 9 years ago, so work  is slated to start soon.  TDOT’s design for this segment calls for a 48-foot wide median and a wide cleared right of way adjacent to both sides of the highway, and extensive cutting and filling to create an elevated roadway — think of an Interstate highway or the Pellissippi Parkway to imagine what is being planned. The grassed median alone will be wider than the entire current roadway. There will be no more trees to buffer between the Southwood subdivision and the highway or between the cleared properties in the Horizon Center and the highway (someone I know said “all trees that you can see from the road will be gone”) and the brick entryway to the Westwood subdivision probably will be removed.

If people don’t like this (or other details, such as the bike lane on the shoulder), public officials (both city and state) need to hear from you. They’ve heard from me asking for the design to be scaled back (apparently I was the only one to write a letter to TDOT after the public hearing on the design back in 2000,  and I’ve communicated more recently to TDOT as a City Council member) and a few others, and the Oak Ridge Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB) recommended that City Council encourage TDOT to change their design from a “rural” to an “urban” design, but it appears to me that we critics are not being taken seriously.  If others agree with us, they need to speak up. (Opportunties to speak to Council include “appearance of citizens” at tonight’s Council meeting at 7 pm and the City Council Night Out at the Civic Center Tuesday evening from 6 to 8 pm.)

Here is some “material” on the subject, starting with the “guts” of a message I sent to TDOT’s regional manager in March of this year:

The principal concern that I have (and that I have heard from other residents) is that the overall width of the proposed design, including a 48-ft median and very wide clear zone on both sides of the travel surface, does not appear to be necessary (it greatly exceeds what exists on the higher-traffic segment of Hwy 58 west of the interchange) and will result in excessive environmental impacts, unnecessary construction and maintenance costs, and long-term detriment to efforts to maintain a “human-scale” community design that fosters pedestrian travel and community cohesion.

Environmental impact concerns include:
(1) loss of forest, riparian areas, and probably wetlands in the corridor
(2) noise impacts in residential areas adjacent to the corridor that are currently buffered from the roadway by vegetation that would be lost
(3) increased impacts to water quality and aquatic habitat in East Fork Poplar Creek due to reduction of vegetative buffer, loss of shade, and increased stormwater runoff
(4) possible impacts to flood storage and routing in East Fork Poplar Creek
(5) loss of aesthetic qualities.

From a cost perspective, I think it is clear that a wider swath increases the costs of both construction and ongoing maintenance. Reducing the width of this project to make it no wider than the segments immediately to the east and west (that is, the Hwy 95 segment currently under construction and the Hwy 58 segment from the Hwy 95 interchange west to the Clinch River) should free up some funds for other uses, both now and in the future.

There has also been community concern about potential impacts to the “checking station” structures (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) on either side of the roadway west of Westover Lane and to the nearby cemetery, but I understand that these features would be protected under TDOT’s design. Additionally, I told you that residents of the Westwood subdivision (entered at Wisconsin Avenue) are concerned that the project would require removal of the brick “gate” structures at the entrance to the subdivision, and you explained that this is unavoidable.

I recognize that funding priority for this project depends on the availability of an existing design, but I also know that even a “final” design often requires many changes, and that it is far less costly and time consuming to change an engineering design than it is to modify a road once it has been built. I believe that the requested modifications to reduce overall project width could be made within the context of the overall design (and thus without jeopardizing the overall project package). Additionally, I find it frustrating that I and other citizens registered these same concerns (orally and in writing) when a public meeting was held on this project about 8 years ago, but we did not receive responses to our expressions of concern — and the design remained essentially unchanged. I hope that changes can be made now to improve this project while reducing its costs.

* Here’s the text of TDOT’s April 8th reply to me:

I forwarded your e-mail to the Department’s Headquarter Design Office for assistance in addressing your concerns regarding the improvement of State Route 95 from State Route 58 to near Westover Drive in Oak Ridge.

As you are aware, a corridor and design public hearing was conducted on September 21, 2000. A review of the public hearing comments was made on December 27, 2000. Information based on the transcript reveals the hearing was attending by twenty-one people with six people making comments to the court reporter, two making written comments and one letter. You provided the letter and a comment to the court reporter.

The project has an approved environmental document. The project is designed in accordance with the Department’s standards and guidelines for a four lane divided facility using the typical sections as proposed in the approved Advance Planning Report. Comments from the public hearing and local government official regarding the addition of bicycle lanes and turn lanes have been incorporated into the present design. The facility will provide a bicycle lane on the roadway shoulders in each direction.

The typical section utilizing the 48 foot median is the normal typical used for a four lane divided facility. The 48 foot median is provided to allow for separation of opposing vehicles and allows sufficient area at median openings for safe vehicle storage making left turns and u-turns. The clear zone for this roadway is normal for this type of facility and utilizes the roadway shoulder for bicycle lanes. The roadway ditch provides for drainage.

The section of State Route 95 from Westover Drive to State Route 62 was designed with a narrower typical section because the area was established more urban and densely developed. The design also avoids the historic guard towers “checking stations” located near Westover Drive.

The Department strives to meet local concerns in the design of roadway projects while following the standards and guidelines established for safety of the motoring public. As the project progresses into the construction phase, opportunities to
improve safety and enhance aesthetics will always be considered.

* I don’t have an electronic copy of EQAB’s final letter to the City Council, but this draft is pretty close to what the board sent:

EQAB has recently learned that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) will provide funds for the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) to begin construction of Phase 2 of the State Route 95 Highway Improvement Project. As you may know Phase 2 covers the area from the West Guard Tower near Westover Drive to the SR 95/58 interchange. Members of EQAB reviewed the plans for this project. As a result of our review we would like to share some observations and concerns about this project.

The design for Phase 2 is based on a standard TDOT rural section design. As proposed it will have a cross section similar to an interstate-class highway with two traffic lanes in each direction, wide shoulders to accommodate bicycles and pedestrians, and a 48-foot depressed median for drainage. This design will result in clearing as much as 250-350 feet of right-of-way prior to construction. We are concerned that this construction will result in the destruction of a large area of natural habitat . At a time when City Council has tasked EQAB with developing a sustainability plan to reduce the city’s carbon footprint and help Oak Ridge become more environmentally friendly, construction of such a roadway is viewed by our board to be wasteful of natural resources and does not set a very good example of our commitment to a more sustainable future. The cost of such the proposed Phase 2 project is also wasteful of monetary resources at a time when these resources are becoming far more scarce. One reason we believe Phase 2 is wasteful is that Phases 1 and 3, which Phase 2 is sandwiched between, are both significantly more narrow urban sections. A rural section situated between two urban sections has limited benefit to the overall traffic flow patterns in this area.

Between 30-90 additional acres of forest would be needlessly razed to accommodate the rural highway section versus the urban section. At ~$30K per acre for unimproved buildable land in the West End, the value of this lost land, assuming the area abutting the highway does become completely residential, would be between $1 million and $3 million. This would be an absolute loss, since the commercial value of a deep median is essentially zero. If some of the land along the highway became light commercial instead of residential, the lost value could exceed $6 million.

The carbon sequestration value of the lost standing timber would be roughly $120-360K.

The broad shoulders and deep median buy us absolutely nothing, cost the City quite a bit in lost land etc., and cost the State quite a bit more in construction expense as well.

The members of EQAB are of the opinion that the Phase 2 design is incompatible with the City’s land use plans for the west end of Oak Ridge. With the development of Rarity Oaks and Horizon Center this area will not remain rural for very much longer. The build out of Rarity Oaks will ultimately make much of the area adjacent to the south side of the right-of-way residential. Similarly, the planned development at Horizon Center and Parcel ED-6 will bring a mix of commercial, industrial, and various density residential developments to the northern areas. We believe consideration of these factors necessitates an urban design to ensure compatibility with the future use of this area. An urban design would also be more compatible with non-motorized human users (i.e., bicyclists and pedestrians).

The original public meeting for the Phase 2 project was held almost nine years ago in September 2000. A lot of things have changed in the intervening years; unfortunately the design for Phase 2 has not been altered to account for or safely accommodate these changes.

Although we realize this project is being pursued on an accelerated schedule required by the ARRA to secure funding, we believe these concerns warrant a reexamination of the application of a standard design that since it’s first proposal has been superceded by changing conditions on the west end of town. The members of EQAB believe it would be to the benefit of the city, its residents, and future growth to explore the possibility of altering the proposed design to the proven, existing urban design that is more compatible with current conditions in the city.

To accept this project because the money is there to buy an elephant when we only need a horse will not help our community’s effort to establish itself as a sustainable community.

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