An ongoing construction project aimed at improving the intersection of Highways 160 and 184 is creating gridlock both on the road and behind the scenes.
The construction, which is about 70 percent complete, has caused detours, loss of income, inconvenience and long waits for both locals and tourists. Many local merchants claim they have lost business due to the project. They maintain that the roadwork has made access too difficult to their businesses along the frontage road that parallels 160.
Many others are are annoyed about the time it takes to get through the intersection.
Sometimes it takes as long as 15 or 20 minutes to get across 160.
Others charge that the intersection itself is not only confusing, but unsafe.
Locals complain about noise problems, and residents of Grand Ave. (Byway 160) are concerned about the increased traffic on their street and heightened threats to pedestrian safety.
All of this came to light in a public meeting with Colorado Department of Transportation representatives on July 7.
Resident engineer Bahram Seifipour addressed a packed room of Mancos citizens, town officials and other interested parties, including state Rep. Mark Larson.
The meeting opened with a smiling Seifipour discussing how well the project was going; reminding folks that CDOT had indeed listened to concerns brought up at previous planning meetings and promising that if the people just “hang in there, we’ll be done and out of here for 20 more years. We won’t be bothering you again for a long time.”
He anticipated many of the questions the public would ask and addressed them immediately; explaining the need for jug handles (curved exit ramps) to give access from a city street (the frontage road) to the highway.
He assured the public that the traffic light at 160 and 184 would be activated by the end of July and reminded people that even though it seems like the project is taking a very long time, it could have happened in two shorter chunks of time, but that would have spanned two summers and people would have been even more displeased.
As for the delays, he claimed that he “warned everyone that the delays would be up to 30 minutes.” He said he has been doing undercover checks, appearing at the intersection in different vehicles, and that “the longest delay that I had was 15 minutes. That’s better than what we promised.”
After the bright news from Seifipour, the floor was opened up to audience members. Hands flew up around the room.
Don Schwartz, local veterinarian and business owner, said he had a safety concern about pedestrians having to cross a right-turn lane in order to reach the “walk” buttons.
“I am very concerned about the button locations at the intersection crosswalks,” Schwartz said. “Children have to cross the turn lanes to get to the buttons to clear the way to cross the road.” Many attendees voiced agreement.
The crowd was reassured that there have been studies done and statistics show that this is a safe design, certainly safer than an unsignalized intersection. (A young girl was killed here in 2000, the second person in one year, prompting this entire project.)
“I cannot promise that we won’t have any accidents, but I can promise that they won’t be fatal,” Seifipour said.
Other concerns were expressed about the intersection. Many people said they have seen large trucks with heavy or wide loads unable to make the turns at both the intersection and on the jug handles. These would be delivery trucks, carrying supplies to businesses such as Cox Conoco and the P&D grocery, in addition to trucks carrying loads such as logs or modular homes.
“Once the construction is complete, all of these problems will be gone,” Seifipour said. “Trust us.” Seifipour reminded folks that CDOT has been doing this for a long time. The agency has engineers who specialize in intersections, he said, know what they are doing. “Things will improve when the project is complete,” he said.
Many of the issues that were raised either will, like Seifipour said, be resolved at the end of the construction or, like the off-center placement of the medians and the signals, cannot be changed. Seifipour and Nancy Shanks, also from CDOT, reminded people there had been six preliminary planning meetings before this project commenced that offered a chance to object to the plans. Also, according to the CDOT reps, “When that girl was killed there was not a plan in place. No matter what, we have made this intersection safer than it was.”
But many believe that things are just as dangerous. Resident Herman Wagoner said, “We’re not gaining anything in our safety.”
Seifipour disagrees. He said that federal guidelines, based on extensive research into traffic safety, were followed in designing the intersection.
One issue for some residents is the noise that is being created by the downshifting and slowing of large trucks as they come into the speed zone on 160. There are now noise-ordinance signs at either end of town.
Another ongoing concern is the traffic on Grand Avenue, which roughly parallels the highway. Grand is a residential street, running through town, past the school. But it is also a byway, or business route. The town does not have jurisdiction over it, even though it lies within town limits, so any concerns need to be handled by CDOT.
According to residents, there have always been problems with speeding and heavy traffic on Grand, but they have increased exponentially since construction began.
One resident at the meeting complained that the signs outside the town used to send drivers down Grand to bypass the construction traffic. This was changed the day before the July meeting.
Still, according to many residents, now that Willow is open to and actually crosses the highway, the traffic is worse. One man said several dogs being hit by cars and killed in front of his house at Willow and Grand. “Must we wait until it is a child before we do anything to solve the problem?”
Seifipour replied, “That is not part of the construction project that we are working on now; we will have to look into that at a later date.”
Kate Kearns, also a resident of that block, suggested several solutions, including speed bumps, “Children at Play” signs or a four-way stop sign at the intersection of Willow and Grand. Consensus among Grand Avenue residents is that something has to be done.
Town Administrator Tom Glover suggested extending the school zone to Willow. And, since the speed limit on that block is 25 mph eastbound and 35 mph westbound, he suggested consistency by having it be 25 mph in both directions.
The next issue, of course, is in having the speed limit enforced.
Marshal Steve O’Neil has had his department patrolling Grand on a regular basis. “We have been placing radar signs on the road and patrolling more frequently,” he said, adding, “We have also been responding to calls from residents advising us that there are cars speeding up and down Grand Avenue.”
According to O’Neil, there has been an increase in speeding on the byway, but there has also been an increase in tickets issued. “We are waiting on Warning Ticket books to be printed. Then, we can document every time we stop someone who is going less than 5 mph over the limit, who we just give a warning to.” This way, when CDOT does its “study” at the end of the main project, to see if there really is a problem, the marshal’s office will have already begun the research and documented the results.
“In two days, we issued 11 citations for both speeding and running stop signs,” O”Neil said. “This is definitely an increase.” O’Neil is working on posting the town speed limit as “25 mph unless otherwise posted” within the town limits. Unfortunately, because Grand is technically a highway, this change in speed limit would not affect it unless CDOT agreed.
In a phone interview, Shanks said that CDOT is “looking into all of it, but again, we will have a more representative picture of the problem after the project is done. We will definitely look at the speed limit on Grand and Willow.”
When asked about extending the school zone, she said that “the school and the city must write a letter stating interest, issue a formal request and then we proceed from there.”
Larson, who has shown considerable interest in the project, has been working with residents and exploring their concerns.
He has shown his support for investigating the Grand Avenue issue by remaining in contact with residents, following up on questions and probing into CDOT’s policies.
In a brief interview, he said, “I imagine that we can make these changes without a study.” He added, “There are models that they (CDOT) work with, and, it just makes sense with Willow now providing highway access.”
Shanks could not be reached to respond to this idea.
Tom Whalen, another resident of the area, shares the concern. “I have two kids and I have lost a dog to traffic here. I don’t want it to be one of my children,” he said. “Nobody wants to have a stop sign in their front yard and have big trucks stopping there all day, but it’s a small sacrifice for the safety of the community.”
“Change always causes pain,” Seifipour said at the July 7 meeting and it seems that he is right. Many people, residents and non-residents who travel through are unhappy with the changes. Some see things in a positive light. But the overwhelming feeling was one of discontent. About half the audience members left before the meeting was over, angry at the responses, the situation, and the fact that they couldn’t get a word in edgewise.
Don Schwartz’s parting words were “You should have left it the way it was.”
Whether or not the intersection’s safety has been improved is yet to be determined.
The town of Mancos has CDOT’s promises that it is indeed, better. But there are many doubting Thomases who will believe it only when they see it.