Areyou ready for border blockages?

Published on Thu, May 4, 2006 by ack Kintner

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Are you ready for border blockages?

By Jack Kintner

If you have a comment on the particulars of the upcoming project to expand State Route 543, locally known as the truck route, to five lanes between Boblett and the border crossing into Canada, your chance to meet with the responsible officials from the state department of transportation (WSDOT) comes Thursday evening, May 4 at 6 p.m. at the Blaine Senior Center.

Dustin Terpening of WSDOT’s office in Burlington said, “things will undoubtedly get worse before they get better. The meeting is an informal open house where we want people to come and ask all the questions they can think of.”

When contacted about why the WSDOT is calling an open house about the state-funded project, Senator Dale Brandland (D-Bellingham) said he will not be able to attend. Rep. Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale) will also miss the meeting but said that as a member of the house transportation committee he’s been working on this project since he got to the legislature eight years ago.

“We’ve got the money now and have to get this thing going on time, but will make sure we minimize the impact of the project.” Ericksen invited those with questions to call him at 360/786-7980.

The construction schedule calls for closing the extra truck lane that runs from Boblett Street to the border in June until the project is finished sometime in the fall of 2008. Terpening said this is needed to drill the holes for 1,400 pilings needed to support retaining walls on each side of the lowered roadway plus a planned D Street overpass.
That work will continue through the end of this year. In 2007, the highway will be lowered as much as 25 feet and an overpass will be installed for D Street traffic.

In 2008, the road will be poured, using concrete from H Street north and asphalt (to save money) from H Street south to Boblett.

Closing the truck lane is seen by Blaine truckers as a virtual guarantee of traffic gridlock for the entire two to three years it will take to build the new highway.

Chuck Schamel, vice-president of TC Trans, located on Odell just south of Pipeline Road said, “Right now trucks back up daily from two or three in the afternoon until 10 or 11 at night,”

Schamel’s company provides tractor-trailer combinations to carry freight north across the border to Canadian destinations “for truckers who can’t cross into Canada,” he said, “and in doing this we make about 60 border crossings each day.”

Schamel said that during construction “anything that keeps trucks and cars separated is a good thing. They should be working with the Canadians to move cars to I-5.

As it is, this will create longer backups when the cars mix with the waiting trucks.” Schamel said that as much as this will delay the trucks, it’s going to be difficult if not virtually impossible for cars to cross on SR543.

With the two types of vehicles mixing in a single northbound lane before going to their separate Canadian inspection lanes near the border, “a backup in one backs up the other one, too,” Schamel said.

Figures from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) indicate that though the total amount of vehicles crossing the border varies, the proportion of cars crossing at the Peace Arch and the truck route remains very roughly constant, with the Peace Arch getting from 55 to 70 percent of the traffic.

In 2005, for example, 1,366,000 cars crossed northbound at the Peace Arch. At the truck route 1,091,000 cars crossed northbound.

These figures suggest that diverting cars from the truck route could come close to doubling traffic at the Peace Arch.

Suggestions for keeping cars and trucks separated to expedite travel include working at night; moving waiting trucks out of the construction area; closing only the portion of the road actually being worked on; and adding a temporary lane on the west side of the roadway to divert cars off I-5 onto a “business loop” that would get people waiting in line off the freeway and onto Peace Portal Way, where they could take advantage of Blaine businesses.

Terpening, however, said that predicting problems and thinking up solutions is often counter-productive because “the reaction traffic has to an obstacle is often hard to predict accurately.”

Blaine police chief Mike Haslip agreed, saying that “to deal with this effectively it’s better to provide an alternative or detour that’s obvious and attractive rather than trying to outguess motorists before a project starts ... And don’t worry, we’ll be on scene to help out.”

Regardless, Schamel said the project is worth doing “even though it’s going to be a painful couple of years to get there.”

He said his preference would be for trucks to exit I-5 onto a re-built exit 274 and directly onto Odell Street and then to the border either via H Street and the present truck route, or by a completely new route, “to get the trucks away from the school.”

He said such measures are justified because,“Blaine’s only here because we’re on the border, and because of that, trucks are essential to Blaine’s continued existence.”

The project will be nice when it’s finished, he said, but it will be “10 years out-of-date the day it opens.”

Planners at WSDOT agreed that eliminating the trucks-only lane and closing SR543 down to two lanes will undoubtedly jam traffic for the next three summers. But due to poor soil underneath the road, Terpening said, 1,400 pilings will be needed to support it and for that they need to drill holes 80 feet deep.

“That requires bigger drilling rigs and more room to work,” he said, along with the large cranes that will be lifting steel off trucks and into the shafts. With all this equipment, we need quite a bit of room. It’s going to be a tight squeeze as is.

“Trying to keep the truck lane open would substantially lengthen the project. When you extend the length of a project you also increase the cost of the project exponentially.”

Blaine Chamber of Commerce president Gail Kruk said in an e-mail that the project “sounds like a nightmare for Blaine residents and businesses, individuals crossing the border and for our truckers.The tourists will not come!”

Kruk predicted tough times locally, pointing out that “the board walk is in progress, we have new businesses coming and now we will be negatively impacted by the truck lane closure.

“I think for some Canadians this will be the final straw, or they will use the Lynden or Sumas crossings, thereby passing Blaine completely.

“The same goes for Americans traveling north – they will avoid the Blaine crossings... it could be a disaster for our restaurants, retail stores and hotels/motels.”

Kruk suggested that truck traffic could be re-routed to Sumas, “and make both the Peace Arch & SR543 crossing strictly car crossings until the truck lane re-opens, but again, we are moving folks out of Blaine and that is never good for our economy.”

The other issue cited by Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic is, that, of how congestion within Blaine will affect such things as emergency access across the truck route during construction and school bus traffic to and from Point Roberts.

“I know they’ve given this a lot of thought at WSDOT,” Tomsic said, “so the question is whether anyone has identified specifically who will be impacted by this user group – for example, what is the impact on school traffic?”

Carl Wagelie, director of transportation for Blaine schools, said that he met with WSDOT officials when the project was first proposed two years ago.

“I’ve been guaranteed that we’ll have good border access as well
as access across 543 during construction.”