550-160 upgrade gains approval

Council gives green light to intersection change

Durango City Council on Wednesday gave the green light to a $3.3 million plan to improve traffic flow at the city’s worst bottleneck, the U.S. Highway 550-160 interchange by the DoubleTree Hotel.

At the urging of nearby businesses, work would not begin until late summer or early fall to avoid conflict with the height of the tourist season, said Tommy Humphrey, a traffic engineer with the Colorado Department of Transportation.

After a brief public hearing, city councilors embraced the plan, noting it also would improve safety and the aesthetics of a major gateway into Durango.

Camino del Rio in the downtown area is so dangerous that one person has died and 46 people have been injured in traffic accidents since 1986, Humphrey said.

Councilor Dick White predicted the plan would be popular with students at Southwest Community College because it would give them a median refuge for the crossing of Camino del Rio at Seventh Street.

Because of the new median, southbound traffic on Camino del Rio will not be able to make a left turn onto Seventh Street.

The state also would consult with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department about beautifying the raised median with landscaping and possibly art.

Councilor Sweetie Marbury raised concerns that wildlife would be tempted to venture onto the median to eat the vegetation and get run over by traffic, but City Manager Ron LeBlanc assured her that the city could choose plants that would not attract deer and other wild animals.

Spencer Compton, a cyclist, was the lone speaker at the public hearing, asking for a bike lane. Humphrey assured him that Camino del Rio would be put on a “diet” to make room for a wide shoulder for bicycles.

Humphrey summarized the plan as a necessarily cost-effective plan for easing traffic flow because the metro areas of Denver and Colorado Springs swallow the lion’s share of the state’s transportation budget.

It’s also a tried-and-true traffic pattern that already has been implemented in other parts of the country.

“We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Humphrey said.

The state, which shares jurisdiction with the city for the interchange, would create a new, 500-foot to 600-foot turn lane on Highway 550 for northbound traffic seeking to turn west on Highway 160 going toward Mesa Verde National Park and Cortez.

The longer turn lane is intended to keep the traffic from bunching up right at the intersection while also allowing for more continuous movement north and south. Vehicles currently get backed up waiting for cross traffic to make left turns.

Westbound traffic would be diverted to the new turn lane by new signs, a painted stop bar on the pavement and flashing red or green signal lights.

Traffic lights also would be synchronized to minimize stops, such as eastbound traffic waiting for the northbound-to-westbound traffic to get into the new turn lane.

Traffic coming from Cortez still would have to wait at the Highway 550/160 interchange to make a left turn onto Camino del Rio.

jhaug@durangohherald.com

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