A turn for the better?: A proposed revamp of U.S. 160 through Cortez is designed to improve safety

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HIGHWAY 160 IMPROVEMENTS PROPOSED

A traffic signal would be installed at the intersection of Main and Hawkins streets in Cortez under a
plan proposed by the Colorado Department of Transportation. Photo by Gail Binkly

Slower, safer, smoother.

That’s the vision for traffic along U.S. Highway 160 through Cortez.

On Nov. 24, Mike McVaugh, a traffic and safety engineer with the Colorado Department of Transportation, unveiled ideas for achieving some of those goals. McVaugh gave a PowerPoint presentation to the city council that suggests a number of ways vehicles could be slowed down, safety improved, and movement facilitated.

The catch is, of course, all those proposed modifications would cost money – in some cases, a lot of it.

Still, the council is planning to think them over.

More comfortable

Safety on Cortez’s Main Street, which is also U.S. Highway 160, has been a concern for almost as long as the city has existed. The perils facing pedestrians were the focus of a cover story in the Free Press clear back in November 2004, about a month after then-city manager Hal Shepherd had been struck by a truck while crossing the street near City Hall. He survived with a fractured wrist, bruised ribs, and a concussion. (The article is online at fourcornersfreepress.com. Search under “Pedestrian Safety.”)

Yet Mark Twain’s adage about the weather – everyone talks about it, but no one does anything – could have been applied to the safety issue. While it wasn’t precisely true that nothing was done to protect motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians, improvements seemed few and far between.

But for the past nine months, CDOT and an engineering firm, Fehr & Peers of Denver, have been working with the city to try to make U.S. 160 through Cortez more comfortable for the traveling public, with a particular focus on improving the downtown corridor.

The impetus for the effort came from the city, according to McVaugh. “The city asked us a couple of years ago if we could work together to do this,” he told the Free Press in a phone interview.

After holding three public meetings as well as meetings with individual business owners, the agency and the engineering firm came up with the “U.S. 160 Access Control Plan and Roadway Reconfiguration” presented to the council Nov. 24. The plan takes into account citizen comments, which addressed a host of issues – everything from the need for more pedestrian crossings and traffic lights to the bizarrely high curbs in front of the Wilson Building at 10 W. Main downtown.

“This process went pretty fast,” McVaugh said. “It was a good one, with good interaction. Sometimes there are a lot of differing opinions to work through, but not in this case.”

Go slow

For planning purposes, the highway corridor was divided into three segments that have different characteristics:

  • Maple Street to Harrison Street (the downtown area);
  • Harrison to Sligo streets (the City Park section)
  • Sligo to Patton streets (the eastern gateway)

In the downtown segment, citizen concerns generally boiled down to the need for safer pedestrian crossings, beautification and “better branding,” and wider parking.

In response, the team came up with suggestions to narrow traffic lanes and add landscaped medians. The narrower lanes would leave space for a buffer between traffic and parallel parking along the street, so people have more room to open car doors.

However, McVaugh said there simply wasn’t room to accommodate a designated bike lane. What is proposed instead are “sharrows” – clearly marked shared lanes for bikes and motor vehicles.

The proposed medians would be installed in portions of the turn lane now running down the center of Main. They would certainly mean restricting access to some properties, McVaugh said. While motorists are presently able to turn left into and out of almost all businesses, some of the accesses would become “right in, right out” (in front of Wendy’s restaurant, for example) and a few would be “right out only” or would have other restrictions.

McVaugh said he recommends the medians be 20 inches in height. “That allows you to do more significant improvements” on the medians, such as landscaping and sculptures, he told the council. The medians would be “crashworthy” of vehicles moving at speeds up to 45 mph

In addition to providing beautification opportunities, the medians have the benefit of slowing drivers. Narrower lanes also tend to help reduce speeds far more effectively than speed-limit signs.

McVaugh told the Free Press such medians do influence drivers to be more cautious because they don’t want to run into something that high.

“Look at how fast people drive south of town on Broadway, even though there’s a [lower] median,” he said. “They don’t feel it’s a hazard that they need to be aware of. This 20-inch median definitely changes your perception and also provides more protection for a pedestrian than a regular curb does.”

Medians would be installed most of the way through the city, with some exceptions. For instance, McVaugh said the owners of Burger Boy at 400 E. Main asked that there not be a median in front of their eatery. “We have it planned as a striped median instead of a full one,” McVaugh said. This means left turns will continue to be allowed there.

People who came to the public meetings were polled electronically about their feelings regarding different proposals. The polling found strong support for all the key elements of the downtown plan: landscaped medians, gateway signs, bike markings, and a buffer between parking and travel lanes.

Safer crossings

In the City Park section from Harrison to Sligo, which is wider than the downtown stretch, planners propose reducing lane width and adding a buffered bike lane, as well as parallel parking in front of City Park.

“You could have on-street parking in front of City Park, from Park Street to Mildred Avenue, on one side,” McVaugh said.

Again in this stretch, a number of accesses would become “right in, right out” for better safety. One such area would be in front of City Market, where multiple accesses would be consolidated.

“A left turn onto the highway is the most dangerous movement you can make,” McVaugh noted.

Pedestrians would get a huge boon in the form of a mid-block crosswalk in front of City Park, with a rapid rectangular flashing beacon. When walkers push a button, lights will flash to warn motorists of their presence. The median gives pedestrians a “refuge” in the middle of the street, McVaugh said.

Such crosswalks, he said, earn 70 percent compliance from drivers vs. a paltry 30 percent compliance for a traditional crosswalk (something many local pedestrians can attest to).

Raised medians would be added, and a new traffic signal could be installed at Edith Street (near McDonald’s). The idea of a light at Edith polled well, he said – as did parking in front of City Park, buffered bike lanes, and the landscaped medians.

There is a proposed crosswalk at Edith, but it’s “good but not great,” McVaugh said. In the proposal, pedestrians have no median for refuge in the middle of the crossing, and are walking into a left-turn lane. If the crosswalk were relocated away from the intersection to one of the raised medians and a flashing beacon were installed, the crossing would be safer. It would be even better if a new traffic signal were put in, he said.

Because there would be a bike lane in this section, green pavement markings would be added where right-turn lanes cross the bike paths.

Another pedestrian crossing with a flashing beacon would be installed in the block in front of Sunshine Motors on the north, allowing folks on foot to cross to Dairy Queen, Pizza Hut, and other businesses on the opposite side.

In the “eastern gateway” section, which is broader and has a higher speed limit, people’s concerns included limited visibility at certain access points, the need for more pedestrian crossings, and the difficulty of turning onto Main from some side streets.

Because the highway is wide and relatively straight, it encourages drivers to go faster, McVaugh said. “Right now once you leave Mildred there are no signals until Sligo, and people speed up,” he said.

One suggested measure was to reduce the highway width from 67 to 63 feet and add two feet to the sidewalk on each side.

In this stretch, there would again be buffered bike lanes, but no on-street parking. Medians would probably be 8 feet wide.

A traffic signal would be installed at Hawkins Street to provide safer access to the three hotels there — the Baymont, Comfort Inn, and Holiday Inn Express.

At Colorado Highway 145 near Lakeside Lanes, McVaugh said, there is concern that the merge lane heading east is overly long, allowing people to speed up too much before they try to blend in with other traffic. “We want to make them merge when they’re going slower,” he said. Shortening this two-lane section would provide more area for a “gateway treatment,” he said, including a median that could be 20 to 24 feet wide.

At the council meeting, Councilman Orly Lucero commented that 24 feet of median would be a lot of landscaping to maintain, but McVaugh said it wouldn’t have to be all greenery – it could have xeriscaping and/or sculptures.

McVaugh said when asked to prioritize the proposed improvements, the people polled picked improvements to the downtown segment first, followed by pedestrian crossings and safety measures.

The question of cost

The big question, of course, is how much any of these changes would cost and whether funding could be made available.

Funding is key to how quickly any of the improvements could be implemented. And Cortez, which is in the process of buying the former Cortez Journal building and remodeling it to be the new City Hall, is not flush with extra funds.

McVaugh said he would like to see the city enter into an intergovernmental agreement with CDOT. An IGA involves no financial commitment, he said, but it would establish the proposed traffic plan as the set of guidelines to follow for future development.

“Right now, if someone wants to develop a property on the highway, they have to go through the state access code,” he said. An IGA, on the other hand, would establish the proposed design and improvements as the standard in Cortez. “The IGA will override the highway access code,” McVaugh said.

“With an IGA you’re looking at the corridor and the future of Cortez as a whole.”

He emphasized that the IGA would be a “living document” and could be amended as needed.

With or without an IGA, the price tag for the entire package of improvements would be steep. McVaugh declined to give even a ballpark figure, but he said not everything has to be done at once. “With the limited funding we all have, this is not something that is going to happen in two or three years,” he told the Free Press. “It might take 10 or 15.”

However, “There are things that can be done fast” and relatively inexpensively, such as the improved medians, he said. “Things can be done in incremental steps.”

City Manager Shane Hale asked how quickly improvements could be made downtown. McVaugh said in conjunction with re-striping that section of Main Street, CDOT would also like to do “microsurfacing” of the entire stretch, grinding it down and connecting the underlying concrete panels to eliminate some of the “thumping” that occurs when motorists drive along it. “This is probably two to three years out,” he said, and would cost about $3 million.

Hale asked whether the street could be repainted immediately. McVaugh said it was possible but, “I’m not committing to it.”

“Some immediate relief in the downtown corridor would be great,” Hale replied.

A restripe alone would not be expensive. McVaugh said one recently done in Salida on a stretch similar in size to the one in Cortez (but asphalt rather than concrete) cost $200,000. “But if we could smooth up the road and make the ride a little more comfortable, I’d rather spend the $3 million,” he said.

Hale said he is frequently approached by members of the hotel community voicing concern about their clients having to cross the highway on foot without a crosswalk. It’s a big issue, he said, and pedestrians have been hit.

“We’re probably not ever going to have enough money to do everything in this plan,” Hale said, “but we may be able to address big public-safety measures and downtown issues.”

Installing a crossing at Hawkins in front of the three hotels might be relatively inexpensive, he said, and would be a good step, as well as measures to improve “walkability” downtown.

Mayor Karen Sheek said a combination of improvements should be implemented. “We have a tendency in this community to talk a lot about what we’re going to do,” she said. “And then nothing happens. If we can take care of low-hanging fruit so people can say, ‘This is a result of that study I participated in’,” it would be good, Sheek said.

The council will consider the proposals during upcoming public-works budget talks.

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From December 2015.