Yelm City Council discussed the project overview of the Yelm Loop bypass at its Oct. 5 study session, specifically in regards to access to Walmart at the southeast end of the loop.
Bill Elliott, who is the design engineer for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Olympic Region, presented the current status of the entire project to council last month, but part of the presentation raised red flags with some of the councilmembers.
At the September meeting, Elliott said those coming from 103rd Avenue to Walmart along the loop will not be able to turn left into Walmart because WSDOT plans to install a raised median on the road. Instead, travelers will need to go to the planned roundabout on state Route 507 at the end of the loop and turn around to then take a right turn into Walmart.
The update was met with mixed feedback from councilmembers, with several of them saying the restriction would be a nuisance for Walmart shoppers along the corridor.
Elliott explained that traffic models conducted by WSDOT resulted in the median.
The city council had Elliott and Scott Sawyer, the loop’s design team lead, out to its Oct. 5 study session to review that part of the project.
Sawyer explained the section of the loop on 103rd Avenue down to Walmart is considered “managed access,” as compared to most of the loop’s “limited access” corridor, that prevents driveways along a route.
Because of the increased traffic that driveways will add to the managed access part of the loop, Sawyer said WSDOT wants to remove left turns into Walmart on 103rd Avenue as people head on the loop toward Highway 507.
Sawyer said when WSDOT works with its managed access corridors, it uses three main tools: a center median to restrict turns across traffic, access spacing where driveways are kept a safe distance apart and turn-lane channelization to install turn lanes into the driveways it allows.
He said the planned center median, which would prevent left turns, is more necessary for safety along that portion of the loop, than turn-lane channelization.
“The main point is that access management improves safety,” Sawyer said. “It’s not complicated. When we have less conflict points, there’s less collisions. The less times that we can cross traffic, the less chance we have of that traffic colliding with each other.”
He said safe access is also good for business, though at first folks may disagree.
“It is a common ... misperception that access management is detrimental to business,” Sawyer said. “When we start managing access in doing some of these tools that I listed, it’s not uncommon for businesses to react and say, ‘That’s going to be damaging to my business and my customers aren’t going to like this.’”
He said studies show limited access can have a neutral effect or be even better for business.
“It makes some degree of common sense that customers, if they’re frustrated and there’s near misses and it’s kind of the wild west in trying to get to a place of business, then that ends up sort of putting a bad taste in someone’s mouth in terms of what the experience is like to go to that store,” Sawyer said, adding a balance between convenience and safety can be reached with the center median, given the increased traffic that Walmart elicits.
Sawyer said development conditions for Walmart in 2006 support the center median, as well as traffic studies conducted in 2019.
The traffic delay on the planned Highway 507 roundabout at Walmart will only increase from seven to nine seconds with the center median in place, Sawyer said.
Councilmember Tracey Wood objected to the measure.
“What if we, as a city, say, ‘We don’t like that. We don’t want that. We want a turn lane right there.’ What say do we have?” Wood said.
Sawyer said the city does have some say, but WSDOT has been working with city staff on the measure every step of the way, and did not come up with the proposal on its own.
“WSDOT is absolutely open to the city’s interests and requests along this area,” Elliott said. “This is within city limits. The city has a primary role in the implementation of the managed access criteria to the adjacent parcels within this segment and city staff interact with that criteria regularly with permitting of developments. We are absolutely open to the city’s interests and recommendations.”
To add a left turn lane into Walmart across the median, the city would need to make a formal request for a design change in writing to WSDOT, Elliott said. WSDOT would then consider the request.
Councilmember Joe DePinto said if WSDOT says the traffic would be improved with the median, then council should listen to the experts. DePinto reminded the council that WSDOT could retrofit a left turn lane if the proposed method does not work.
On the subject of speed limits along the loop, Sawyer said a 40 mph speed limit is the best option for a balance between convenience and safety, noting a 50 mph limit would amount to a 56% increase in collisions.
Wood said the 40 mph would be “out of touch” with what his constituents want.
Sawyer said the corridor is an urban arterial and not a highway or interstate that would accommodate higher speeds.
During the presentation, Councilmember James Blair also raised concerns of car accidents that frequently occur at the intersection of Killion Road along the existing portion of the loop.
DePinto said the accidents probably occur because people are going too fast.
Elliott said he will contact WSDOT traffic operations personnel and “make sure they are aware” of the troublesome intersection.
Mayor JW Foster said Yelm Police Chief Todd Stancil will provide WSDOT with the year’s accident reports for the intersection.
Also at the meeting, traffic collisions on Coates Road at Crystal Springs Road and Edwards Street were discussed, with Yelm Public Services recommending stop signs with pedestrian crossings at the intersections.
Congestion at the new Yelm Middle School at Coates Road was also discussed, a situation Yelm Public Services is considering for traffic improvements.
A possible fund for low-income housing in the county was also introduced for council consideration, with Yelm having an option to create its own home fund through an increase of taxes. The county can impose its own home fund, regardless of Yelm’s decision to create its own, Foster said.
Councilmembers decided the creation of the possible home funds should go to a vote of the people, with councilmembers DePinto and Blair saying they are against a tax increase.