Pedestrian safety a concern in airport redevelopment
By Tara Nelson
With a resolution to close the Blaine municipal airport looming, city officials are looking for the best way to plan for anticipated commercial development in east Blaine.
In a recent joint work session of the Blaine City Council and planning commission, elected officials debated how best to rezone the city’s 34 acres of prime industrial land currently occupied by the municipal airport into a mixed-use “gateway” district.
Blaine community development director Terry Galvin said the primary function of the new district is to encourage development of a mix of commercial, office and light-industrial uses that would primarily service cross-border traffic. How those uses are to be planned through zoning, however, are still being debated.
A handful of city officials are at odds at how best to balance the needs of business pedestrian safety concerns at the corner of SR 543 and Boblett Street, the planned main vehicle entrance into the district – especially given its proximity to Blaine schools.
Councilmember Harry Robinson, a former planning commissioner, said he was concerned about the likelihood of middle and high school students crossing the highway on their lunch breaks or recesses to patronize potential retail or fast-food business on the other side.
“We’ve got a terrible mixture of cars, trucks and kids,” he said. “And you’re going to have much of that traffic during school hours.”
The most recent traffic counts by the Washington state Department of Transportation estimated that as many as 11,000 vehicles pass through the intersection per day. Many of those vehicles are large tractor-trailers that can be as long as 70 feet and travel at speeds of 40 to 50 miles per hour, often pushing yellow lights or running them altogether in anticipation of entering the freeway.
Blaine police chief Mike Haslip agreed. Haslip said his main concern was pedestrian traffic coming from the schools and what those students would find of use to them on the other side of the truck route – especially with Friday evenings in the fall and late October when students are attending basketball games and it’s raining or foggy.
“I just really fear what's going to happen at that intersection,” he said. “When you’ve just shot out from Canada and you’re coming down that road going 40 or 50 miles per hour getting ready to get on the freeway, and that light is just about to start to turn yellow, you're going to be tempted not to slow down.”
Galvin agreed, adding that people fail to realize the speed and the amount of tonnage traveling through the intersection and that truck drivers who are anticipating accessing the freeway frequently run red lights.
“Often times, these guys try to time it so they don’t have to stop or slow down and they often fudge,” he said. “The combination of all of the elements we talked about, are really not conducive to kids or pedestrian traffic. There’s an alarm I think that goes off for all of us.”
Planning commissioner David Gallion said he recently visited the intersection and waited only 15 minutes until a truck missed the light. He suggested installing flashing yellow lights in an attempt to encourage traffic to slow.
Haslip, however, said northbound drivers exiting the freeway need time to slow down and adjust to more residential environment.
He added that many truck drivers have been traveling that particular route for years and are used to the majority of pedestrian traffic occuring at the H Street intersection. Haslip said it could take them a while to adapt to new signage.
Prevention through incentives
Blaine public works director Steve Banham suggested continuing to allow pedestrian crossing at Boblett Street but limiting the types of business allowed on that particular corner to try to decrease the incentive for students to cross the highway.
“We’re trying to take away the pedestrian attractors that would increase pedestrian traffic,” he said. “I think we should continue to allow for pedestrian use there, but if we do things through zoning that we know will create more pedestrian traffic we know we’re making the situation worse.”
Galvin said he would like to see that zoning focus high-traffic commercial retail to the north end of the property and restrict certain types of business to the south.
“I think it’s ill-advised to allow commerciial service and retail uses in that south area,” he said. “It would also make it difficult for indstrial traffic and trucks to get out.”
He also said he would like to work with WSDOT to fund a possible pedestrian overpass at the intersection of Boblett and SR 543.
“It’s the most sure way to ensure the safety of the kids,” he said.
The big box debate
Some council members such as Scott Dodd and Bonnie Onyon, however, were hesitant to restrict business use in that area and instead suggested enhancing crosswalks at the H Street intersection.
“What if a big box store like Costco wanted to come in?” she said. “That’s the kind of thing you would want to have in mind.’
Galvin, however, disagreed.
“If indeed that were to be uncontrolled, that intersection could very well become a very intense highway commercial node and I question whether or not that could do more to obstruct access to the gateway for the trucking traffic,” he said. “But by separating these out, we have much safer access in and out.”
Some planning commission members also warned of the possibility of other, less popular big box stores, such as Wal Mart and potential negative economic impact those retailers could have on downtown business.
Onyon, however, said she didn’t think think such a store would impact the local economy because most of Blaine's downtown businesses are specialty stores.
She added that the additional tax revenue from such a development could be huge.
“People who shop at Costco probably will still shop in other stores,” she said. “Also, if something like this were allowed, just think of the taxes we would get into our general fund. That would be a positive for the whole town in that regard because now we have some money to put into the streets. That’s something we need to think about.”
Dodd added he liked the idea of a pedestrian overpass and blinking yellow lights but said it would be more useful at H Street and the truck route, as several hundred new homes are planned near that area.
Several planning commissioners were also doubtful that students or other pedestrains would walk nearly a quarter-mile north to the H Street crosswalk.
“People are always looking for the shortest distance and they will take a chance crossing this highway,” one commissioner said. “There’s no way people are going to walk over to H Street.”
Other traffic concerns
City officials are also concerned about increased truck traffic mixing with residential traffic as projected with the planned extension of Boblett Street west from Odell Road to SR 543. Currently, the airport functions as a wall, effectively blocking SR 543 traffic from entering the district.
One concern is semi-trucks on Boblett Street turning right onto SR 543 towards the border that often need to use the center turn lane to gain enough distance to clear the corner.
“If you’re a small car to the right, you’re a little pinched and that's not an optimal situation, but it’s going to happen routinely when you have this mix of traffic,” Galvin said.
Blaine police chief Mike Haslip added that can also be a hazard for pedestrians. “You have to worry about the pedestrian standing on that sidewalk as well,” he said. “Sometimes semis come right over that curb up onto the sidewalk.”
The council has scheduled a public hearing for April 28 to discuss the issue.