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State money could help 'road diets' in Iowa City

Solon, Marion, Dubuque also slated for traffic safety funds

A vehicle makes a turn from Mormon Trek Boulevard in Iowa City on Monday.
A vehicle makes a turn from Mormon Trek Boulevard in Iowa City on Monday.
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IOWA CITY — State money earmarked for traffic safety improvements could help Iowa City perform “road diets” on a couple of busy, accident-prone roadways.

On First Avenue on the southwest side of the city, school buses, vehicles, and cyclists share tight quarters with schools, shopping, industry, and an active railroad. About five miles west, on Mormon Trek Boulevard, vehicles, and bikes contend with hills that obscure visibility as travelers try to access a grocery store, credit union, and retail.

The four-lane roads have a combined 140 collisions with four incidents involving cyclists and two involving pedestrians — one fatal — in the last five years, and at least $2.2 million in property damage in the past 10 years, according to a funding request from Iowa City to the Iowa Department of Transportation.

Iowa City believes a road diet will help address the problem. The concept involves reducing the number of travel lanes while adding a center, left-turn-only lane. The theory is reducing the points of conflict leads to fewer crashes, according to the funding request.

“In the past decade, a growing body of research and situational evidence has found that converting four-lane undivided roadways to three lanes — one in each direction and a two-way left turn lane — can improve safety and maintain an acceptable level of service,” according to Iowa City’s application submitted by Ron Knoche, public works director.

The Iowa DOT agrees. As part of its traffic safety improvement program awards, the agency is recommending $1 million for Iowa City road diets. The Iowa Transportation Commission will vote on a slate of traffic safety improvement recommendations worth $9.6 million when it meets today in Ames.

Other recommendations include:

l $164,220 to convert a two-way stop with left turn lanes on four approaches to a mini roundabout on 35th Street in Marion.

l $115,900 toward a $238,590 project for signalization at Highway 1 and Main Street in Solon.

l $500,000 toward a $632,148 project to construct a roundabout at Grandview Avenue in Dubuque.

l $20,000 toward a $27,000 statewide bicycle safety media campaign.

Since 1987, Iowa law has required 0.5 percent of the road use tax fund, which includes the gas tax and vehicle registrations, go to traffic safety improvements. This year, the total award is higher than normal because some previous awards were returned, said Terry Ostendorf, Iowa DOT’s traffic safety improvement program manager.

Ostendorf said in the past few years, road diets have become an increasingly popular request.

“In the areas that have used it, I would say we’ve seen a reduction, at least in the severity of crashes,” Ostendorf said.

The road diet requires no structural changes, only repainting of lines within the existing roadway, Ostendorf said. The low-cost nature helps explain its growing popularity, he said.

In Iowa City, the First Avenue road diet would change the lane design from Highway 6 to Bradford Drive. A separate project to install a railroad overpass is planned to eliminate backups from required bus stops at the tracks. The total cost estimate is $1.6 million with completion expected by December 2016.

On Mormon Trek, the road diet would run from Highway 1 to Melrose Avenue. If approved, the DOT funds would cover most of the $748,431 project, which has a September completion date.

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Jason Havel, city engineer for Iowa City, said the road diets will install bike lanes and follow Iowa City’s Complete Streets Policy.

“It is certainly something that we will continue to look at as we move forward,” Havel said. “It’s a lower-cost solution that not only addresses safety concerns but helps us along with the Complete Streets Policy of making more facilities available to bicycle users.”

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