20,000 A DAY

November 19, 2003 12:00 am
Traffic counts conducted over the years by the Oregon Department of Transportation show steady increases, and point to the fact that Island Avenue and the network of streets feeding into it are becoming inadequate for the volume of  traffic. (The Observer/BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH).
Traffic counts conducted over the years by the Oregon Department of Transportation show steady increases, and point to the fact that Island Avenue and the network of streets feeding into it are becoming inadequate for the volume of traffic. (The Observer/BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH).

Officials look for ways to ease traffic pressure on bustling street.

By Bill Rautenstrauch

Observer Staff Writer

It's a contradictory but true fact of life: The population of La Grande and surrounding area isn't growing significantly, but traffic on Island Avenue keeps getting heavier.

The five-lane thoroughfare, a segment of the Wallowa Lake Highway, is the major east-west connector between La Grande and Island City.

It is a glittering, bustling home for an array of supermarkets, shopping centers, discount stores, restaurants of all descriptions, motels, gas stations, and plenty more. It is traveled by throngs of locals and out-of-towners alike.

Traffic counts conducted over the years by the Oregon Department of Transportation show steady increases, and point to the fact that the avenue and the network of streets feeding into it are becoming inadequate for the volume of traffic.

"I wouldn't characterize the traffic increase over the last 10 years as explosive, but there has been a big change," said Union County Commissioner Steve McClure. "A lot of us can remember a time when Island Avenue was a two-lane road."

In 1991, one year before Wal-Mart and Shop ‘n' Kart opened stores in a shopping center near the

La Grande/Island City border, traffic on the avenue averaged about 12,000 vehicles per day.

By 1997, many more businesses had sprung up, and the number had climbed to 16,000. Presently, ODOT estimates that 20,000 vehicles per day travel on the street.

Associated problems identified in ODOT's La Grande Transportation Plan include inadequate access control, poor traffic circulation patterns, and reduced capacity.

ODOT notes in its studies that accidents along the avenue have been relatively few, but the accident potential has increased and mobility function has eroded.

Over the past two decades, the avenue has seen many improvements. It has been widened and resurfaced. Bike lanes, curbs, gutters, sidewalks, traffic signals and a median near the Wal-Mart complex have been added.

But more growth, and more traffic day-to-day, is expected. And the avenue can't be expanded any more.

"We can't make it any wider," said Steve Davis of the ODOT's Region 5.

A major development on the drawing board is the River's Edge Mixed Use Village, a complex that would, if approved by the cities of La Grande and Island City, integrate shopping and residential use on 70 acres of land across Island Avenue from the present Wal-Mart store.

The village's centerpiece would be a Wal-Mart supercenter. Presence of the complex on land will surely add to Island Avenue congestion.

ODOT, Union County and the cities of La Grande and Island City have known for a long time that traffic management on the avenue would become a problem. In the next couple of years, they will team on projects meant to alleviate the pressure.

Union County,

La Grande and Island City plan to build a new street that will serve as an alternate route for Island Avenue travelers.

That street, which planners refer to as Shops Road, will connect to 26th Street south of Island Avenue and run east behind the ODOT shops and Wal-Mart. It will hook to Walton Road at the other end.

McClure said Union County is the sponsoring entity for the project. The county has sub-agreements with

La Grande and Island City, McClure said.

The county and the two cities are also partners in the Cove/Buchanan Lane reconstruction project.

When completed, that project, like the Shops Road project, should improve traffic circulation by giving travelers an improved, east-west alternate route south of Island Avenue.

ODOT is working on the La Grande Corridor Transportation Improvement Section, which addresses access issues along Island Avenue. The project is in the planning stages now, with work to begin in 2005.

Parts of 26th Street and Riddle Road will see major improvements, particularly near their junctions with Island Avenue.

Davis said Riddle Road near Island Avenue will be widened and improved. A major project feature is the relocation of the entrance to the Bearco Industrial Park.

The entrance will be moved further up Riddle, eliminating a hazard from traffic turning on to Riddle from Island Avenue.

An access road will be added as part of the project. It will extend across Island Avenue from Riddle Road, passing between two gas stations on the south side of the avenue and looping back to connect with 26th.

As part of ODOT's Island Avenue Traffic Signals Section project, a traffic light will be installed at Riddle Road.

Also, the light at the entrance to the La Grande Town Square will be removed, and a new signal installed at Portland Avenue.

A new access point will be constructed across from Portland Avenue for the Boise Cascade mill, Davis said.