City leaders are pleased that the Oregon Department of Transportation is planning to install an innovative bicycle traffic light at the Exit 14 interchange, but they're worried that other changes could endanger bicyclists and pedestrians.
In June, ODOT is planning to start a two-year project to upgrade the interchange.
Traffic signals will be built on both sides of the Ashland Street bridge that crosses over Interstate 5. The traffic signal on the side of the bridge closest to central Ashland will also get a bicycle light.
ODOT knows of only three such bicycle traffic lights in Oregon, and all three of those are in Portland, said ODOT consultant Karen Tatman of Quincy Engineering.
Sensors in the road will sense when a bicycle is at the intersection on the west side of the interchange. Traffic signals for vehicles will turn red and a green light in the shape of a bicycle to let cyclists know it's safe to cross.
"We're excited about ODOT going to this new technology," said Ashland Public Works Director Mike Faught.
At the same time, city officials would also like to see ODOT install a bicycle traffic light on the east side of the Ashland Street bridge, closest to the Ashland airport and Oak Knoll Public Golf Course.
Ashland City Councilors voted earlier this month to send a letter to ODOT expressing support for the one bike traffic light, but asking for a second one.
Councilors are also worried that the interchange redesign is providing such a large radius for semi trucks to make turns that street crossing distances will be dangerous for bicyclists and pedestrians.
City Administrator Martha Bennett said there's a conflict between ODOT needing to accommodate big trucks, and the city needing to think about the safety of bikers and walkers.
City Councilor Carol Voisin pointed out that Southern Oregon University student Gladys Jimenez was killed in 2008 after being struck while she was walking across Siskiyou Boulevard in town.
The city has since made safety changes along the boulevard, including installing beacons that flash when pedestrians cross the street, and realigning a crosswalk that ran on a long diagonal across the boulevard. The crosswalk is now shorter.
Voisin said it could be deadly for bicyclists or pedestrians to have to cross long distances across roads at the Exit 14 interchange.
ODOT Area Manager Art Anderson said the state's traffic engineer feels the interchange is safe for bicyclists and pedestrians.
The state traffic engineer is in charge of approving all designs so that Oregon has consistent traffic standards, Anderson said.
Making the turning radius for trucks smaller would require such a major redesign that ODOT would probably not be able to bid the project in time to get started this summer, he said.
ODOT is upgrading the interchange as part of a state-wide effort mandated by the Oregon Legislature to fix bridges, Tatman said.
The interchange as it is now can't adequately handle traffic volumes. It also has had an "extremely high" number of accidents, city staff said.
They counted 31 accidents between June 1998 and December 2009, including four crashes that involved pedestrians and bicyclists.
Proposed improvements to the interchange could have prevented at least 20 of the reported crashes, including all of those involving bicyclists and pedestrians, city staff said in a memo to councilors.
Also in relation to the planned interchange redesign work, the City Council granted an ODOT request for an exception to city noise rules that govern night work.
A contractor will likely work at night for three weeks this July, three weeks in November and two nights in June or July 2011, Tatman said.
The contractor will be required to keep at least one lane open in each direction during the project to prevent major back-ups of traffic, she said.
Some work has to be done at night when traffic volume is lowest, she said.
City Councilors allowed the exception to noise rules, but only on the condition that the contractor notify all adjacent businesses of planned night work — including several hotels near Exit 14 — and abide by certain rules such as using electricity-powered rather than gas-powered generators.
The landscaping around the interchange will be redesigned to use drought-tolerant plants from Southern Oregon. The current irrigation system uses city water, but it could be tied into the Talent Irrigation District system so that city water isn't used, Tatman said.
The city water supply ran low in 2009, prompting mandatory water curtailment measures.
Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or email@example.com.