Road to rue-ing

JGFitzgerald -- May 29th, 2007

Highway issues I wish I’d thought of when I was a big shot. On a three-point scale, what are the worst intersections in H’burg when judged by safety, irritation, correctibility, and intangibles.

My personal Massanutten Pique awards follow.

Safety suffers when I get off I-81 at exit 243 onto South Main heading north. Do I dash to the straightaway and try to cut left at the last minute, or creep along like a tourist in a Winnebago trying to guess if there’s someone coming up Route 11 too fast? 2.5 points. 2 points go to …

Irritation? Another I-81 exit, 247, getting off the interstate northbound and heading into town on 33. Stop and wait (bring something to read) or fly out into traffic, trusting in God and the self-preservation instincts of westbound drivers? 2.5 for irritation, 2 for safety.

Correctivity? (Yes, I realize I said correctibility above, but I’m betting neither is correct.) Left-turn lanes with no left-turn lights. Evelyn Byrd, whoever he or she was, must have been half a liberal. 2 points, at 1 point per occurrence.

Intangibles? Drive from Wal-Mart to Wal-Mart without the use of language barred from broadcast in most of the civilized world. Pear Street underpass, Pleasant Hill Road, the turn at the auction barn. All of this will presumably be solved by the completion of the Erickson Avenue extension, which must regrettably be followed by the beginning thereof. My child was in diapers the first time I edited a DNR story about the bypass, which would have then skirted the southern edge of town. I will drive through the Pear Street Underpass next week to go to his high school graduation.

Granted, it would take a lot of money to fix these things, but this is America, so we can still complain. A former city official told me during my City Council orientation (political charm school) in 2000 that we were a city of 30,000 people with the traffic congestion of a city of 60,000. We’re at 45,000 citizens now.

25 Responses to “Road to rue-ing”

  1. writergirl says:

    I heard from someone who works at the bank by the Pear Street underpass that it is going to be fixed in the near future. I missed part of the conversation but something was mentioned about re-routing the railroad. I don’t know if it was true, but it would sure be nice.

    My personal irritation is the new rescue squad location. I think it was a poorly thought out location, but really I’m more irritated by the people who completely ignore the sign telling them not to block the entrance to the squad.

    Traffic does stink here, but when I think about the places I could live…

  2. MikeFus says:

    Kudos, Joe, for starting this discussion. I’ve been contemplating using this very topic as the launching pad for my first ever blog post on hburgnews. My hesitation has been due to my anal nature, and the unsuccessful search for a decent graphics/mapping program to illustrate my to 10 (or so) most frustrating intersections/traffic patterns in and around the city.

    First one that comes to mind is the Pleasant Valley Road intersection with South Main (near the Exit 243 illustration Joe mentioned). I work on Pleasant Valley Road, and have to deal with this intersection multiple times daily. First of all, why in the world a private driveway like 7-11 even gets its own light is beyond me – I guess so that traffic, meager though it may be, can go straight onto Pleasant Valley Road? Three things about this intersection really bug me. First, the fact that there is a left-turn-only lane on PVR, which requires that those few vehicles desiring to go straight into the 7-11 are in the right lane. Inevitably, one of those vehicles is near the front of the line, and holds up right-turning traffic. It would be very correctable to put the straight-bound traffic in the left-turn lane, especially since there isn’t a separate left-turn signal. Seems like a no-brainer to me. Second, (and I’m not sure if/how this could be corrected, but it’s irritating, nonetheless) there is almost always a log jam on South Main heading South caused by the Interstate intersection light (just south of PVR) being red at the same time as the lights coming off of PVR being green. Since the queue space between the I81 light on South Main south is already filled up by vehicles already heading south on South Main, there is nowhere for vehicles coming off of PVR to go. So, they move out into the intersection, blocking northbound South Main traffic, hoping that the I81/S Main light will turn green before their light changes. (Sorry for the run-on sentences – this is why I’ve been looking for some way to graphically illustrate!) Third has to do with the Exxon parking lot entrance coming off PVR. It is my (humble) opinion that a vehicle having just turned onto PVR from northbound S Main should not be permitted to turn left into the Exxon. If you want to enter Exxon from n-bound S Main, you should proceed straight through the light and turn right into the Exxon directly from S Main. Likewise (though this may be slightly harder to argue), vehicles exiting the Exxon should not be permitted to turn left onto PVR. My argument for these restrictions is partially for safety – the views of vehicles are almost always blocked from oncoming traffic in both instances), but also for convenience – an already congested intersection is further deadlocked by vehicles waiting to turn into (or slowly sneaking out of) the Exxon parking area.

    Another problem area that comes to mind (along the same vein as the Exxon parking area) is the Sheetz at the intersection of Country Club Road and Vine Street. My argument is with the Sheetz parking entrance off Vine Street as it is with the Exxon entrance off of PVR. Vehicles exiting the Sheetz and wishing to turn onto Vine Street should be required to exit at the stop light, and should not be permitted to turn left out of the parking lot directly onto Vine. And especially, vehicles SHOULD NOT be permitted to turn left off of Vine St into Sheetz, ESPECIALLY having just turned right off of Country Club onto Vine. For Pete’s sake, people, go straight at the light on CCR into the Sheetz parking lot!

    I also echo writergirl’s comments regarding the area around the new rescue squad, although my comments aren’t regarding the illiterate folks who don’t know what yellow striping outside an emergency vehicle station means. My frustration is regarding the fact that, again, the straight-bound lane is combined with the right-turn lane. This causes two negative actions on the part of motorists: 1) those who decide that they’re going to cut through the Sheetz parking lot (which is illegal and just plain rude), and 2) those who decide they’re going to be sneaky or too-cool, or just plain obnoxious and zoom past on the left and then cut in front of those who are actually decent enough to reserve their spot in the lane they know they’re supposed to be in. (And, by the way, the spot those reckless dim-wits often choose to cut in line is the yellow-striped zone at the entrance to the rescue squad station.)

    How much of a brain does one have to have to determine the logic in combining the straight-bound traffic with the left-turn traffic? I understand that in the case of the last mentioned situation, there is a dedicated left-turn signal, so in this case to create a right-turn-only lane, the signals would have to be changed, but still, doesn’t that make the most sense? They (whomever “they” are) finally got it right (albeit after the second try) at the Country Club Road/Vine Street light – even there, at first the Right-turn and Straight-bound traffic was combined! Aren’t there some sort of set “rules of traffic”, or at least logic and common sense that govern these things? The Pleasant Valley Road/South Main light is a perfect example – what are the reasons for not combining the left-turn and straight-bound traffic???

    PS – please forgive my very long comment – it’s been simmering for a long time…

  3. cook says:

    i am shocked that no one has been killed there YET, but the individuals who designed the parking lot at “harrisonburg crossing” (what a misnomer!) ought to be sentenced to travel from market to reservoir and back again every day for the rest of their lives.

  4. JGFitzgerald says:

    Regarding PV Road: So many of these things weren’t planned, but rather just happened. Entropy ruled in the ‘Burg at one time, although it was called growth at the time. The Sheetz (1) intersection I should defend (since I voted to OK the changes). Numbers say it’s more efficient. It just doesn’t seem that way when you’re there. The option was more pavement, always the last choice. Lane markers can manage existing traffic. More pavement creates more traffic.

    As to the Squad entrance: That really was one of the best choices for location at the time. (Much better, for instance, than putting it in a council member’s backyard and giving her a park in return for her vote, but that’s another story.) Rude drivers blocking the driveway have never, to my knowledge, cost more than a couple of seconds. The main reason for the stripes is as a public service to the kind of people who are congenitally bound to take and pass at least one jackass test per day.

    There was a plan at one time to create a second entrance to the squad building from U.Blvd. Either it wasn’t needed, or somebody bid more for the land.

  5. cook says:

    Which is the correct article in the city’s mission statement/motto? Is it “The City With A Planned Future” or is it “The City With The Planned Future”? I think I’ve seen both.

  6. Crow says:

    Someone please remind people that the left lane is a passing lane, and that turn signals are for before you start to turn. Thank you.

  7. JGFitzgerald says:

    The City with the Planned Future. Of course the plan was designed in the 1980s and there are still folks in city government who don’t know what’s changed.

  8. finnegan says:

    Another way to judge how dangerous a road or intersection is: look for skid marks on the asphalt. There are numerous skids on 81 (north and south) near the 33 cloverleaf. Most of them double-skids from 18-wheelers.

    I generally avoid the area near H’burg Crossing altogether. I have to go there to get to Regal, Xenia, or Barnes & Noble, but unfortunately for businesses there, my friends and I keep visits to a minimum.

  9. John says:

    After living here for the past 7 or 8 years I can honestly say that I don’t think Harrisonburg’s few traffic problems warrant the extremely high number of complaints I hear on almost a daily basis. (No, I am not from northern VA, I moved from Bedford, VA which has little to no traffic.)

    As Harrisonburg has grown I’m sure that people have noticed a change in how long it takes to get from point A to point B. I am also quite sure that people have also noticed an increased availability of goods and services with the growth. (Just look at the huge number of dining options in Harrisonburg.) If you want to have access to all of these goods and services you must understand that there will be new growth and development that will almost assuredly guarantee more cars on the road. (Unless by some miracle we all start walking or riding our bikes.)

    Harrisonburg is going to continue to grow and our current road systems are proving that they are not always large enough to handle the increased traffic load. Commutes that once took 5 minutes may take 10. Would you prefer the city declare eminent domain and knock down some buildings to add lanes to the existing roads, or have your trip to work or Mr. J’s take a few extra minutes?

    Yes, I’ll admit that there are several places around town that seemingly could have been designed better, but in most of the cases where it seems the wrong decision was made there was probably a reason for it; i.e. the Sheetz intersection. At Harrisonburg’s core is an older city with an antiquated road layout that was planned long ago by people who never envisioned this many cars on the road. The city must work within these constraints when dealing with new traffic issues.

    I feel that the city planner is doing a great job balancing all of the sides of each traffic decision. You can not please everybody. No matter what decisions are made somebody is going to disagree and chastise the city. As we all know, it is much easier to complain than it is to lead.

    I would like to reiterate the fact that I don’t feel that Harrisonburg has the severe traffic problem that so many of my fellow residents claim. If you want to experience real traffic move to northern VA for a few weeks; I think I’ll just stay here and enjoy my city and maybe listen to an extra song during the additional 2 minutes of my commute.

  10. TM says:

    That I-81/33 cloverleaf is the worst not only getting off 81 to 33 as mentioned in the initial post, but trying to get on 81 behind the person that slams on their breaks at the end of the acceleration lane. It’s waaaay to short of a runway for a proper merge. What’s proper etiquette in that situation? I think it’s an acceleration lane, so that’s how I use it. Should I be slamming on the breaks at the end of the ramps?
    I also try to limit my visits to H’burg Crossing. Luckily all the stuff I like in there (Qdoba, Xenia, Franco’s) is at the same end.

  11. MikeFus says:

    I’m not against (controlled) growth of Harrisonburg, nor am I saying that we have “severe traffic problems”. My comments are primarily directed at very specific, correctable traffic pattern issues. I don’t think it’s fair to characterize those of us who are pointing out problem areas that could/should be addressed as “chastising the city”. We’re merely discussing ideas of where improvements could be made (from our humble, lowly position as citizens of this city). If there are specific reasons for why traffic patterns are the way they are, by all means, I am eager to hear those reason so I can understand. For instance, I can see the point that Joe made regarding the Sheetz intersection at Country Club and Vine. It’s that kind of fact-based, logical explanation that I’m looking for. If that kind of argument doesn’t exist, then the problem should simply be fixed.

  12. JGFitzgerald says:

    MikeFus,

    Actually I was referring to the Sheetz intersection nearest the rescue squad. Not to confuse the issue any more.

    Worth noting: Many of the things we’re listing existed in annexed areas before they came into the city, or are the results of federal highway placements, or both. Many, not all.

    The I-81/U.S. 33 cloverleaf came into being pre-Sheraton, pre-Mall, pre-Krogers. It was a place to get off a backwater Interstate just outside of a dinky little chicken town with a girls’ school. Now the NAFTA highway runs through a poultry center with a major regional university, and the exit is the gateway to a retail area that serves between a quarter and half a million people.

    Some people will tell you we grew too fast.

  13. David Miller says:

    The Pear street underpass will be graded and ground level so that when a train comes, traffic stops. During the times when there is no train traffic, it will be very much improved.

  14. Barnabas says:

    Roundabouts, I’ve talked about them before. They’re awesome, we should have some, and then we should have more of them. I’ve know that people will confused by them. So you start by putting them in new developements and streets. SInce they are new roads and new traffic patterns people will be able to better accept them. And then we slowly start to replace old intersections with roundabouts.
    And over a ten year period you can have a good number of conjested intersections fixed with roundabouts instead of adding new lights. Some existing traffic lights could also be replaced by these wonderful asphalt miracles. I don’t think roundabouts are the answer to every intersection but they should be viewed as a very reasonable solution to some of our traffic problems.

  15. Thanh says:

    – Good point Joe about the City annexing in many roadways and developments. The City had no control over those areas when they were first put in, however, I do believe that the “City” is doing the best it can to work with what it has (City staff and residents included).

    – John, I agree that it would be wonderful if more people biked/walked places around town. It would definately reduce traffic congestion; and imagine if more people biked places, and it became more of the norm, less cars, and drivers who are more aware of bike riders… it all might lead to a safer ride for bicyclist. And God forbid that JMU students actually walked or biked from their off-campus housing areas, which are generally less than 1 mile from campus, but instead they choose to spend 20 minutes stuck in traffic on Port Republic Road and then more time trying to find a parking spot. I must admit that I am aware of a group of concerned faculty and staff at JMU are working to address the transportation issue at JMU among many other “sustainability” issues like energy usage, water usage, landscaping, runoff control, waste & recycling, etc… you should be hearing more about it later this summer/in the fall, as a report will be delivered to President Rose.

    – You all should mail your comments on traffic lights and intersections to the Transportation Planner at: Public Works Department, 320 East Mosby Road, Harrisonburg, VA 22801. Many of you make good points and your recommendations for improving existing intersections are worth hearing. Maybe no one within City staff has thought of what you propose, or maybe they have and there’s a good reason not to have it that way… you’d be surprise how much time and staff is dedicated to improving traffic lights whether it be installing new ones, or studying and making changes to signal patterns, or painting lines and crosswalks on the street. You wouldn’t know unless you ask (which I recognize some of you are doing here on hburgnews, but going to the “source” might be helpful). I can at least speak for myself and say that City staff appreciates new ideas, suggestions for improvement, and support from citizens.

    – Roundabouts. You may be delighted, or skeptical to hear that roundabouts will be put in near the new elementary-middle school complex.

  16. John says:

    I don’t have an issue with pointing out specific traffic issues, and trying to learn/understand why traffic patterns are designed in a certain manner.

    My point was simply that too many people complain about traffic in this city, when traffic is really not that bad. Many people seem to feel like these “problem” traffic patterns were simply thrown together with little to no planning. I would wager that there is a reason behind each and every traffic pattern we are discussing. It is highly unlikely that any traffic pattern in Harrisonburg has been installed without some kind of planning or reason behind it. I would also bet that the city would welcome any input, and suggestions regarding traffic issues. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, but if a traffic pattern were bothering me I would contact the city and ask them why it was designed in that manner.

    Eliminating left turns in high traffic areas may seem like a great solution, but it could also cause more issues. For example: To stop all left turns out of Sheetz onto Vine street sounds great. However, what about all of the people that need to get back on Vine? They would be forced to turn right onto 33 W, then make another right on Old Furnace just past Papa John’s, then loop back around to make a left on Vine. That would work, but depending on the traffic load the city may have to step in and fix another problem at any one of those intersections. (I personally doubt that the intersection of Old Furnace and Wolfe next to Papa John’s could handle much more traffic than it already receives without some modifications, possibly a light, but since I’m not a professional planner I cannot make that decision.)

    When you change one traffic pattern it can easily cause problems for another pattern literally down the road. Traffic planners need to take many issues into consideration and weigh the pros and cons of each solution. Inevitably situations will arise which don’t have solutions that work well for everyone, but those solutions may still be the best.

    Instead of just complaining about, or getting frustrated by a traffic pattern, why not pick up the phone or write a letter to find out what the reason behind it is? Why just assume that it is due to some kind of poor planning or oversight?

    That said, I feel that when someone questions whether or not another person has a fully functioning brain they are no longer pointing out a specific traffic problem, instead they are blaming/ridiculing. Perhaps chastise was not the proper word choice, but its also not correct to categorize an insult as “pointing out problem areas that could/should be addressed”. Throwing out insults and pointing fingers does not encourage the type of open conversation that could result in learning about, or fixing a problem.

  17. MikeFus says:

    John – you’re right, the insults are uncalled for – I stand corrected.

    Part of my frustration is that I have sent the city quite a few emails (to pubworks@ci.harrisonburg.va.us, specifically, which is mentioned on the Traffic Engineering page of the City website). I haven’t once received any reply. Perhaps a call or mailed letter would be more effective. I’ve also thought about enrolling in the Citizen Academy, which sounds like a great first-step to educate one’s self about the inner workings of the city.

    I agree that there must be some reason for the way things are. I’d be interested in finding out what some of those reasons are. I’m a “fixer” by nature, and always look for a solution to a perceived problem. Being “in the dark” about why things are can cause frustration.

    BTW – my proposed solution to the left-turn-from-Steetz-onto-Vine situation is to exit at the traffic light facing Country Club Road, and turn left onto Vine when the light turns green. I agree that exiting West onto Market St and doing a U-turn by Papa Johns is not a good idea.

  18. Thanh says:

    For others who might also be interested in Harrisonburg’s Citizens Academy, go here to learn more: http://www.ci.harrisonburg.va.us/index.php?id=936. Its a great opportunity to visit each City department, talk to staff, and learn how things are done. You’ll even have the opportunity to see big machines, visit the water treatment and wastewater treatment plants, and the resource recovery facility! The next session starts at the end of August and more information will be posted on that site soon.

  19. Renee says:

    I am from Northern VA (Centreville), and used to drive/ride to Alexandria on a daily basis. I can say that traffic there is one of the main reasons I did not move back after graduating from JMU.

    However, for a “small city”, I am surprised at how long it takes to get across town here. I don’t know if it’s the sheer number of traffic lights and intersections and tiny roads merging with bigger roads merging with highways, but it does seem to take forever to get from place to place. On occasion, I get on I-81 to jump across town quickly, when I’m sure the local businesses would like me to drive down Main St. or 42.

    I’m not sure if there is one solution, except to increase the effort when it comes to designing new intersections (like Thanh mentioned with the new school roundabouts) and parking lots (like the mess of parking lots between University and Cantrell in the Harrisonburg Crossing area), or to somehow get fewer people to drive and reduce the traffic overall.

    I know I can drive 3 miles in Centreville (as long as it’s not rush hour!) quicker than I can drive 3 miles in Harrisonburg. I guess that city was just planned from the beginning to handle a high volume of traffic, where Harrisonburg started out tiny and not near a major city.

  20. Renee says:

    I am very happy to hear that the intersection at Pear/Erickson/42 will be improved (especially with the new neighborhoods popping up over there). Is the non-underpass version the final solution? There are rarely trains there, so I guess that’s a decent solution. I use that bank, and I go through the underpass often in order to get over to Main St., and it truly is a dangerous intersection.

    And speaking of trains, is there some way to have a signal that warns people whether there is a train stopped on either of the tracks by Keister Elem. so traffic can be diverted to the overpass on Cantrell?

    I have been stuck there many times, and it seems to create a dangerous situation to have traffic blocking in the Elementary School and the Fire Station, and to possibly have turnarounds en-masse on a small residential street with a lot of traffic volume.

    It would be nice to be warned and be able to avoid a backup before crossing Main St. or 42. Maybe an elecronic sign could be hung with the traffic lights at either end of that road segment and indicate “stopped train that way” and locals would know to take Cantrell to go around?

  21. charles chenault says:

    Finn – Renee’s suggestion regarding a train warning signal on Main Street at Maryland Avenue and especially Rt. 42 at Maryland Avenue is being explored. Thanh’s 5/30/07 (6:12 p.m.) comments are well placed. I read your blog as much as I can because the comments and suggestions are helpful to me.
    Thanks – Charlie

  22. Daytonres says:

    John is both right and wrong. Compared to traffic in NoVa Harrisonburg’s traffic woes are pretty pitiful. With that said, the writing is on the wall and the future looks bad for local roads. It has already been pointed out that it takes a while to get through town and that will only get increasingly worse as more homes are erected and more cars are on the roads. My concern is that the current infrastructure cannot be adapted to relieve the situation and only minor improvements can be made to fix traffic flow. Traffic flow is the only problem that the city has on its roads, but that problem creates many others.

    Roundabouts? Great idea, but the thought of the people I see on the roads everyday using roundabouts….YIKES!

  23. JGFitzgerald says:

    In all fairness to those accused of being insulting: A public official who is going to survive past the next Christmas soon learns that the question “What kind of idiot are you?” can only be answered with “What kind do you need me to be?” The chaos of any governmental body makes the smartest person in it look like a fool, assuming you can find that person. Thick skin or thin resume are the only options.

    In all fairness to the presumed fools: The intersection problems were there when they arrived, and will be there when they’re gone. Look at a map of the city and look for a grid. Look for rhyme or reason. Valley Pike and Indian Trail cross the Spotswood Trail. These are not new problems. Discussing them should be fun. What kind of idiot can’t see that?

  24. Josh says:

    MikeFus, I’ve had similar experiences with communications not being returned from City Offices. I got to the point where I kept a log of calls and promises made/not kept.

    I attended the inaugural Citizens Academy and enjoyed my experience overall. I don’t think I ever got a satisfactory response about why the city never addressed my concerns, but I did learn a little about contacting city offices:

    First, I don’t recommend directly contacting specific city offices (in my case, I was talking to engineers about erosion concerns on neighboring construction projects). Instead, I suggest contacting the City Manager’s office directly (432-7701) OR contacting a city council member. I hate to recommend the “political” city council member route, but they’re your representatives and sometimes that’s the best option.

    Kudos to Council Member Charles Chenault for reading this blog!

  25. JGFitzgerald says:

    I liked to tell people there were three levels of importance in ascending order. Third, the governmental functions and principles handed down to us from Jefferson, et al. Second, the necessary functions of a local government, such as roads, schools and cops. And above all else, first, “Get this person off my back.”

    Mr. Citizen would call me, I’d call a city office and ask them to call Mr. Citizen and see what the problem was, and Mr. Citizen would call me back to thank me for solving his problem. Often I didn’t know what the problem was.

    I did that for $200 a month. They’re paying themselves $1,000 now. Call them. At these rates, call them five times.

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