Controversial SR97 roundabout proposal draws big crowd to DOT Open House

Roundabout Crowd

More than 200 people attended an Open House at the state Department of Transportations’s maintenance facility near Okanogan. The Open House was arranged to take public comment and explain the various alternatives for trying to make the SR97/Cameron Lake Rd. and Armory Junction Rd. intersection more safe. Also attending the meeting were state Seventh District Rep. Joel Kretz (left) and Rep. Mike Armstrong, 12th District. Photo by Gary DeVon

OKANOGAN – A proposal to install a roundabout at the intersection of Highway 97 and Cameron Lake Road drew more than 200 people to an open house at the state Department of Transportation’s nearby maintenance facility Wednesday, Sept. 19.

The roundabout has drawn a lot of controversy since it was first proposed with several people commenting that they didn’t like it on a Facebook page created to discuss the issue.

While not all of the 230 people attending the three-hour Open House were there at the same time, it was still standing room only most of the time in the conference room designed for a maximum occupancy of 60 people. Representatives from the DOT explained how a roundabout works and why they had come to the conclusion that it would be the best bang for the buck to serve the intersection which has the Cameron Lake Road to the east of the highway and the Armory Junction Road to the west. The state claims that there were 11 collisions at the intersection last year alone and wants to make the intersection more safe.

Other alternatives presented included lowering the speed limit, placing advanced warning signs, adding left turn lanes on the highway, installing a traffic signal, adding left and offset right turn and an acceleration lane for Armory Junction Rd. and left turn lane for Cameron Lake Road and creating a split “T” with left and acceleration lanes. Costs for these options ranged from very little, like lowering the speed limit, to $2.3 million for the split T, which seemed to be among the most popular, except for its cost.

At times emotions ran high with Bruce Hahn of Omak calling the roundabout “idiotic” and saying the problem could be addressed for about $500 with the addition of new signs.

“That’s idiotic… the roundabout costs too damn much, you guys just want to spend money,” said Hahn.

“Signs aren’t the panacea you think they are,” replied Dan Sarles, DOT Regional Administrator for the North Central Region.

While many DOT representatives were stationed at arial view maps of potential alternatives, a video of how a roundabout works was continuously showing on a screen. The biggest concern about the roundabout proposal, other than cost, seemed to be the fact that it would slow highway traffic to 25 mph or less at the junction. People said they felt this would impede truck traffic and cause even more problems.

SR97 Roundabout

Brian Walsh (second from right), a state Department of Transportation Traffic Engineer with roundabout interest explains why a roundabout would on Highway 97 help stop collisions at the intersections with Cameron Lake and Armory Junction roads. Walsh was among several DOT representatives at an Open House held at the DOT maintenance facilities conference room on Wednesday, Sept. 19. Photo by Gary DeVon

“That’s the bottom line, people have to slow down and they don’t want to slow down,” said Brian Walsh, a DOT Traffic Engineer with roundabout interest.

“Do you find that they work better in an urban environment, rather than on a highway?” asked a woman who would only say she lived in Omak.

“That’s where I have concern, I know they put one in Olympia near the capital which seems to work, but that’s in an urban area,” said state Rep. Mike Armstrong (12th District). “Although I have to give the DOT some credit they do have several alternatives shown here.”

Armstrong said the DOT was doing a good job of presenting the various alternatives and that he was proud of the community for getting involved and having their voices heard at the meeting.

“That’s the way the process is supposed to work,” he said.

Walsh said there are roundabouts that would be similar to the one proposed located on SR203, near Duval; SR206, north of Spokane and on US2 at Sultan. When asked about a fatality on the roundabout at Sultan, Walsh said that it was untrue and that there had been no fatalities caused by any of the roundabouts in the state.

“There was no fatality at Sultan, we did have a woman who had a heart attack at the roundabout at Mt. Vernon, but that wasn’t caused by the roundabout.

There was a lot of interest in the Split T concept which would not slow down highway traffic, but would remove the turn onto the Armory Junction Rd. entirely and move it further south. This would allow more room for turn lanes on to the Cameron Lake Road. The biggest drawback to this would be acquiring the property needed to make the westbound turn to Okanogan and connecting with Oak Street. The display had a drawing of a new road that would go right through the middle of Hamilton Farm Equipment’s lot as one possible scenario. It would be a straighter shot to town, but would be “kind of steep” and require we purchase the necessary property said one DOT representative. The roundabout is estimated to cost $1.6 million and would eliminate 10 of the 11 accidents at that intersection and the Split T is estimated to cost $2.9 million and would eliminate 5 of the 11 accidents, according to one of the DOT’s charts.

Sarles asked, “If I can address more of the accidents for less money, why would I chose the Split T?”

Outside the meeting room, Okanogan County Commissioner Jim Detro was speaking with people coming and going from the Open House.

“I’ve been a trucker all of my life and this is not a good idea,” said Detro, about the roundabout proposal. “There are a lot better places to spend $2.2 million in the county, pointing to the Loup Loup Highway as one of them.

Detro said he had presented a map that featured two left turn lanes and an extended deceleration area.

“They’ve taken a European traffic design and are trying to shove it down our throats in one of the most conservative counties in the state,” Detro said.

In a letter in this week’s newspaper, Kevin Waligorski, the project engineer, thanked those who filled out the 160 comment forms and said that DOT had received a lot of feedback as well as couple of additional alternative ideas. He said the state was looking at the comments and these alternatives in the hopes to find a plan to address the collisions so work on the project could begin as soon as next summer.

For more information on the US97 Cameron Lake Road project and the alternatives discussed see: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/US97/CameronLakeRdIntersection.

About Gary DeVon

Gary DeVon is the managing editor of the Okanogan Valley Gazette-Tribune and celebrated his 25th year at the newspaper in August 2012. He graduated from Gonzaga University with a degree in Communications - Print Journalism, with an emphasis in photojournalism. He is a proud alumnus of Oroville High School. His family first settled in Okanogan County in the late 1800s. His parents are the Judy DeVon and the late Larry DeVon and he has two younger brothers - Dante and Michael. Many family members still call Oroville home. He is single with a grown daughter, Segornae Douglas and a young granddaughter, Erin.

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