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Fight continues against left-hand turns on Prairie

by David Cole
| June 26, 2010 9:00 PM

HAYDEN - Immediately west of U.S. 95 on Prairie Avenue a raised concrete median might, someday, be added.

That barrier would prevent drivers from making left-hand turns into or out of the parking lot access points for Kohl's, Del Taco, Starbucks, a Holiday gas station and other businesses. The left-hand turns on that brief stretch of Prairie, from U.S. 95 to Mineral Drive, caused a significant number of auto accidents, officials said.

Lakes Highway District is planning to put a raised concrete median in, but the timing of when it will be done is not yet known, said district road supervisor Joe Wuest.

Kootenai County sheriff's Major Ben Wolfinger said there were 43 accidents between U.S. 95 and Mineral on Prairie during a one-year period, in part of 2008 and 2009.

"Obviously that's too high of a number for a one-block stretch," said Wolfinger. "And the vast majority of those are accidents involving left turns."

Wuest said the concrete median likely wouldn't go in until Cornerstone Drive is re-aligned to connect with Mineral at Prairie and intersection improvements there are added, either traffic signals or a roundabout.

Drivers then would use Mineral and Cornerstone to access the commercial property north and south of Prairie, much like frontage roads. Informational signage could be placed to help guide the public to the businesses.

But funding hasn't been secured for the intersection improvements, Wuest said. A planned subdivision affects the re-alignment of Cornerstone.

Wuest said the commercial property owners and businesses, except Kohl's, don't support a concrete median on Prairie unless it's done as part of a larger project that includes the intersection improvements and re-alignment. Some businesses expressed concerns to the district of the negative effects a concrete median would have for them, reducing the number of impulse customers stopping in.

Kohl's has no objection to the concrete median.

In fact, in December 2006, Kohl's contracted for a traffic study, which recommended the median. Kohl's was constructed and opened in 2007.

The district has settled on some "interim improvements," Wuest said.

Concrete "pork chops" and traffic "candle sticks" have been installed to cut down on accidents, and no accidents have been reported there since they were added this spring, said Wuest.

The pork chops, which is what they resemble, prevent drivers from taking left-hand turns as they exit a parking lot, channeling them to the right only. Property owners paid for the pork chops.

The candle sticks run along the median and discourage left-hand turns into parking lots. There are two sets of double yellow lines in the middle of Prairie, but state laws haven't settled whether crossing double yellow lines is a traffic offense or not. Two sets of double yellow lines don't make it any clearer.

"That's a controversial topic," said Wolfinger.

State laws say drivers may not cross them for a turn, but other state laws say drivers may.

But if there's a barrier with the double yellow lines, such as cones or traffic candle sticks, drivers definitely cannot make the left-hand turn.

The sheriff's department hasn't written any traffic tickets for left-hand turns on that stretch of Prairie, Wolfinger said. With the traffic candle sticks in place, crossing the double yellow lines is a ticketable offense.

"That's considered a barrier," he said.

Two traffic studies the district contracted recommended a concrete median.

Wuest said, "Something needed to be done."

He said the number of traffic accidents was "significant" and was taking up a lot of law enforcement time.

"They were getting tired of going out there," Wuest said.

One study focused in part on accidents. It was completed one year ago, and said "access management" is needed to control the "left-turn conflicts, reduce the accident rate, and improve traffic operations."

The study said the long-term solution is to control access, "which is best achieved by constructing a raised median on Prairie Avenue between U.S. 95 and Mineral Drive and using the new intersection at Mineral-Cornerstone to provide left-turn movements from Prairie Avenue."

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