County engineers unveil plans for new traffic light

Published on Wed, Mar 7, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Whatcom County engineers hope to start construction on a traffic light at a busy intersection east of Birch Bay by next May but are still looking for funds to complete the railroad crossing improvements associated with the project.

County public works is planning to install a four-way traffic light at the intersection of Portal Way and Birch Bay-Lynden Road just west of Birch Bay Square. The project will include, among other things, dedicated left and right turn lanes, a crosswalk spanning the southern portion of Portal Way and integration with the nearby railroad crossing. Construction is expected to last from May to September of 2013.

The project has received approximately 2.1 million in federal and state grants so far and is about 90 percent through the design phase, county engineering manager Jim Karcher said. The total cost is expected to be around $3.5 million, and county public works staff are still seeking grants that could pay for as much as $1 million in railroad crossing upgrades.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) will determine how extensive the train detection upgrades will need to be for the intersection to safely handle cars and trains, Karcher explained. County public works staff had to wait until design on the project was fairly complete before BNSF and the county could even look at what additional rail warning systems will be needed.

“We have a few issues we have to work out before we can say where we’re at,” Karcher said.

At the very least, the project will add an improved crossing gate and track crossing surfaces that will ease going over the tracks for pedestrians and bicyclists, Karcher explained. The project will also install detectors that will tell the computer program controlling the signal how far away an approaching train is and allow it to clear the intersection of cars before the train gets to the crossing.

Once construction starts, BNSF, which doesn’t permit any other agency to do construction work on their property, will most likely close the crossing completely at brief intervals instead of closing the tracks for one extended period of time. Karcher said BNSF will work with local law enforcement and emergency agencies to make sure accommodations are made to allow emergency vehicles to cross the tracks when needed.

In addition to the train crossing upgrades, the project will widen 900 feet of north Portal Way and 700 feet of the southern portion of the road. The project will also widen 700 feet and 650 feet of Birch Bay-Lynden Road to the west and east, respectively.

The improved portions of road will have 12-foot lanes and 6-foot shoulders, which will be able to handle bicyclists. The project will also add 2 feet of fill to fix a bump on the west side of the train tracks.

All improved portions of the road will be 35 mph as an effort to decrease travel speed before the stop light. The speed limit on both Portal Way and Birch Bay-Lynden Road is currently 50 mph.

Due to amount of concrete and asphalt being added as part of the upgrades, county project engineering Kevin Thompson said the project will also include a stormwater drainage pond at the southwest corner of the intersection. The pond will aide in collecting and filtering stormwater runoff prevented from seeping into the ground by the additional impervious surfaces.

Digging for the water retention pond will require wetlands mitigation, Thompson explained. All mitigation will be done on site and will mitigate about half an acre right next to the retention pond.

The project will require an environmental impact statement and will need land disturbance and critical areas permits from Whatcom County. The project will also need permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because it will use federal funds.

The intersection was originally supposed to be improved years ago, when Birch Bay Square was known as the Birch Bay outlet mall, to handle the predicted increase in traffic, Karcher said. The project had collected federal funds at that time, but they had to be returned when an attendance drop at the shopping center caused the project to be shelved.

County engineers dusted off the plans in 2007 when the shopping center, under new owners, began to regrow its consumer base. The project was altered from a setup like the one at Grandview and Portal Way to one that included full right and left turn lanes to handle a predicted increase in traffic flow over the next 20 years.

Traffic counts for the area are still trending upward, Thompson said. The average daily traffic volume is 14,000 cars for Birch Bay-Lynden Road and about 4,000 for Portal Way traveling through the intersection.

“I think the project is full speed ahead no matter what,” Karcher said.