Delaware Ave./Columbus Blvd. traffic study proposes more turn lanes, longer lights on weekends, and better-marked bike routes

A Delaware Avenue/Columbus Boulevard traffic study recommends adding left-hand turn lanes onto the I-95 Northbound ramp and Washington Avenue, adjustments to the time it takes for traffic lights to cycle and new pavement markings.

A full draft of the study, done by Whitman, Requardt & Associates for the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, is expected to be posted on the DRWC website Friday for two weeks of public comment. But Monday night, WR&A Vice President Jeffrey Riegner, city office of transportation and utilities Director of Planning and Policy Steve Buckley and streets department Chief Street Lighting and Traffic Engineer Richard Montanez gave an overview at the Independence Seaport Museum.

DRWC commissioned the study as part of the Master Plan for the Central Delaware.  WR&A and the DRWC worked with city transportation and streets along the way, said DRWC Director of Planning Sarah Thorp. SEPTA and PennDOT have also been consulted, she said, and any idea that the city or state said would not fly has already been tossed out. This study will inform a more detailed analysis by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

The study looked at accident information and traffic counts to determine the best way to keep traffic moving smoothly and reduce lines for left-turns, while also protecting the safety of pedestrians, cyclist and transit users.

The study found that between 2006 and 2010, there were 14 crashes involving pedestrians and 12 involving bicycles along the 3.5-mile stretch between Snyder and Columbia avenues. About half involved a turning vehicle, and the intersections with Tasker and Dock had the highest number of accidents. The five-year crash rate was actually lower than the statewide average for similar streets – something that surprised some residents.

Here are some of the recommendations:

Additional left-turn lanes

Changing the use of several traffic lanes could help reduce congestion at points where traffic tends to back up, Riegner said.

The study recommends changes at key points as a pilot project, and the city is amenable. But Buckley and Montanez said PennDOT approval is needed before changes can be made, and the city must allocate capital dollars to pay for them. The suggestions:

-On northbound Columbus Boulevard at Washington Avenue, convert the left-most through lane into an additional left turn lane onto Washington.

-On southbound Columbus Boulevard at Washington, convert the right-most through lane into a right-turn lane onto Washington.

Right now, lines to make these turns back up a lot, even at off-peak hours, Riegner said. Riegner said PennDOT has some concerns about allowing the additional turn lanes on Washington Avenue, because the change could hamper the use of Columbus/Delaware as an alternate to I-95, if there is an accident on the interstate. Discussions are continuing.

-On northbound Columbus Boulevard at the I-95 on ramp, turn the left-most through lane into a left-turn lane onto the ramp.

These options were popular with the small group of people who came to the presentation, most of whom were from South Philadelphia neighborhoods.

City transportation and streets are comfortable with these changes, at least enough for a pilot project, Buckley said. But because the roadway is a state road, PennDOT must sign off. He later said he was not certain how long it would take to get PennDOT’s response.

Montanez said it would take about $5,000 to $10,000 to add a turn lane, and the vast majority of that cost stems from adding the overhead bar and signs for each lane.

Resident Jeff Rush, who lives in Queen Village, said the additional turning lanes were good solutions, and he hoped that the relatively small cost of adding the lanes didn’t keep it from happening.

South Philadelphia resident Dianne Mayer asked if turn lanes couldn’t be added at Christian Street as well. Presenters said that could be looked at in the future, but the strong belief is that drivers are using Christian to go west into the neighborhoods because they can’t make the turn on Washington very easily, so fixing Washington will take care of Christian.

Another study suggestion: Making Callowhill Street two-way between Second Street and Columbus Boulevard, providing another way for drivers to get from the waterfront into the neighborhoods.

Signal timing

Riegner said the current cycle length (the time it takes for a traffic signal to go from green to yellow to red and back to green again) is 120 seconds, or two minutes, which is typical for this type of road. “Usually, longer cycle lengths make it better for cars, shorter cycle lengths make it better for pedestrians,” he said.

The study found the optimal cycle lengths would be 135 seconds during the morning rush, 150 seconds in the afternoon, and 140 seconds on Saturdays. For now, the decision is to keep the weekday morning and evening cycles as they are, because that benefits side-street traffic and pedestrians, Riegner said. But the city will try changing the Saturday cycles to 140 seconds. The hope is this will alleviate traffic on the south end of the study area, near the big box stores, where weekend traffic tends to be really heavy.

At some intersections, the signal order will change, so that the left-turn green arrow comes after the through-traffic’s green light. This change is recommended to be made for north bound traffic at Dock Street, the I-95 on ramp at Lombard Circle; the I-95/I-76 ramps, Christian Street and Washington Avenue. It is recommended for south bound traffic at Sugarhouse Drive, Penn and Spring Garden streets and Pier 70 boulevard.

This will translate into fewer stops for few traffic, and save on time and fuel costs for traveling the corridor, Riegner said.

Pedestrian improvements:

In the short term, the study recommends adding signs to help pedestrians know where and how to cross and removing signs that are confusing or out-dated – a process that has already begun, Buckley said.

Within the next two years, the study recommends adding a signalized crosswalk at the Shackamaxon Bus stop, and adding a crosswalk across Delaware Avenue on the north side of the Frankford Avenue intersection.

The study also includes longer-term suggestions for the next two- to five years. Among them: Constructing a sidewalk from Tasker Street to the Pier 70 storefronts and upgrading curbs and ramps to ADA standards.

Noting that the signal cycle length was not going to change during the week, Pennsport Civic Association President Jim Moylan asked “what’s the purpose of the pedestrian push button?”

At many of the crosswalks, the pedestrian walk signal is programmed to come up automatically as part of the traffic cycle, so the button changes nothing, Riegner said.

So, is that button just there to give walkers something to do, Moylan asked.

Montanez said that north of Spring Garden, the button does change things: The walk sign won’t come on unless it is pushed.

Thorp said after the meeting that the city doesn’t want to remove buttons where they currently do not impact the signal, because it wants the flexibility to change the way things work if future conditions merit it.

The walk signals are being set so that people can make it across at a 3.5 feet per second speed. Mary Stumpf, a graduate of the Citizens Planning Institute and member of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, said she thought it would be wise to take into account the types of people that are likely to cross at a particular intersection. Older people, those with baby strollers, and others might have trouble crossing at that rate, she said.

Thorp said the 3.5 feet per second is a federal standard. Riegner said that the standard has changed in recent years – it used to be 4 feet per second. Most people can make it at 3.5 feet per second, Riegner said. Those who need extra time should leave when the white walker is up, before the flashing red signal appears. Those who leave the curb with the white hand can walk at 3 feet per second and still make it, Riegner said.

Moylan asked if cycle lengths and timing couldn’t be changed during special events – such as sporting events or weekends during the summer, when hordes of people are trying to get down the shore, or return.

Right now, programming can be changed, but someone has to manually make that change.

Montanez said he was hopeful that after more than a decade of trying, there was finally funding to change that.  He said in about two years, there would be new traffic cameras that will allow city workers to monitor traffic, and change the timing of the signals remotely, based on current conditions. This is called active traffic management.

Bicycling recommendations:

The study suggests means of improving cycling along Delaware Avenue/Columbus Boulevard until the multi-purpose trail that will stretch along the entire waterfront is completed – which is the long term solution.

Short term changes include updating signage – replacing “share the road” signs with “bike lane” signs, for example. Within the next five years, the study suggests updating pavement markings.

Transit recommendations:

Short-term suggestions include moving the southbound, mid-block bus stop opposite Dave & Busters slightly north to the Callowhill Street signal. The current mid-block location is encouraging pedestrians to cross outside the crosswalk, Riegner said. Similarly, the Vandalia Street bus stop would move to the Pier 70 signal.

Within the next two years, after Philly Fringe is fully moved into the old pumping station across from Race Street Pier, the study suggests moving the bus stop currently at the Comfort Inn to Race Street. 

Stumpf, who lives in the southern part of the study area, questioned moving the bus stop away from the hotel, which as a 24-hour location, likely gives transit users a sense of security. Riegner said this is exactly why the study suggests waiting until Philly Fringe is up and running.

Over time, the study suggests improvements like benches, shelters and trashcans at busy transit stops. Across the country, these are generally paid for with private money, Riegner said, so partnerships are suggested.

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