Durango grapples with growing traffic
City and CDOT will attempt two fixes this summer

The City of Durango and CDOT will be implementing a couple traffic fixes this summer. There’s hope that fixing an intersection and synchronizing traffic lights with improve the flow along North Main Avenue./Photo Todd Newcomer.

Durango may be a small city, but there’s still plenty of traffic during morning and evening rush hours. And with an increase in vehicles as summer tourism season gets rolling, road rage and grumbling are on the rise.

“There are definite rush hours in Durango – anyone who has to get to work at 8 a.m. knows that,” said Mayor Virginia Castro.

“We’ve always been aware that we’re a transportation-challenged community, because of our topography,” said Greg Hoch, city planner. “We understand that this time of year complaints (about traffic) rise, and fall when school is back in.”

To help mitigate traffic on Main Avenue, two upcoming projects are planned. The first will improve the Durango High School intersection at 24th and Main, and the second will synchronize Main Avenue’s traffic lights from 32nd Street to its intersection with U.S. Highways 160 and 550.

Improvements to the DHS intersection should begin within the next few weeks and be finished by the time school starts up. The project includes adding an additional turn lane into the school, replacing the old traffic signal, installing a speed bump leaving the school and redirecting pedestrian traffic to the north side of the intersection by prohibiting pedestrians from crossing on the south side.

“As everyone knows, there’s a big mess there a couple times a day,” said Ed Demming, traffic and safety engineer for the Colorado Department of Transportation. “I avoid it at lunch time.”

Demming credits the city and the 9-R School District for supporting the project, saying, it probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

The improvements will cost around $380,000, according to City Manager Bob Ledger. Ledger said the school district will contribute $62,500, CDOT will pony up $133,000, and the city will “pick up the difference.”

Synchronized flow

The other project scheduled for this summer, synchronizing traffic lights on Main, will only cost “a fraction” of the intersection project, Demming said. Ideally, people who drive around the speed limit should not have to wait at too many red lights once the system is in place.

The system should be operational sometime after Labor Day.

“We’re just finishing up the hardware portion of it,” Demming said, referring to the antennas and other technology necessary for the radio operated system. “It’s a long process – it’s not expensive, but it’s a long process.”

CDOT will wait until the fall to test the new system in case something goes wrong. “You really don’t want to do it in the heat of summer in case something goes awry,” Demming said.

These synchronized lights may lure some commuters back to Main Avenue. KSUT development director Bruce Campbell, who lives near Junction Creek Road and commutes to the radio station in Ignacio, said he avoids Main by driving down West Third Avenue.

“I don’t drive north Main during rush hour,” Campbell said.

Still, he thinks his commute is much better than that of people commuting into Durango, since they face even more congestion.

“I do have the good fortune of having the reverse commute,” Campbell said.

City drives planning

Hoch said the city is “doubly challenged” in dealing with traffic issues because all major roads in La Plata County run through Durango. Consequently, Hoch said whatever happens in the county affects the city. He cited the development at Durango Mountain Resort as an example of growth outside the city that will impact local traffic.

“We, the city, have been cognizant of the relationship between growth and traffic,” Hoch said. Furthermore, he said it is unfortunate that vehicle use has increased at a higher rate than population growth and development.

“A family of four in the country now has four cars,” Hoch said. “It’s a challenging situation.”

According to Hoch, the city has been planning for growth and its associated traffic issues since the 1980s, when his department saw huge turnover and new employees came with the attitude: “‘Let’s start planning for our future more carefully,’” he said.

The city developed and adopted a number of “master infrastructure plans,” including 1984’s Master Street Plan. Hoch said the idea was that if Durango developed at no greater than the density allowed for in the plan, the town could accommodate the increase in traffic.

CDOT then initiated an area-wide traffic study to see where people were driving to and from, and whether a bypass around the city was practical.

“It turned out everybody was going to Durango, so a bypass around Durango wouldn’t make sense,” Hoch said.

Over the last 15 years, the city has identified eight major street improvement projects, Hoch said – and with those in mind, the city adopted a Major Street Impact Plan in 1998. The new plan includes a fee on all public and private development in the city to help pay for the anticipated improvements. For example, the city paid more than $100,000 in impact fees when the Rec Center was built a few years back, Hoch said.

Other Avenues

Although the impact fee is generating money now, there’s no guarantee that development will continue at the rate it has, so major projects need the support of bonds, said Jack Rogers, Durango’s director of Public Works. However, he said the “no” vote on a 2001 bond issue, which would have generated almost $10 million to improve Florida Road (one of the major street improvements), showed that voters were not ready for the economic commitment, or that they didn’t feel Florida Road was particularly congested.

In the meantime, the east side of Durango by Fort Lewis College is being targeted as the best way to circumnavigate downtown in the future.

“Jenkins Ranch Road is not a bypass of Durango but will serve to get traffic from the north end of town to the south end without having to go down Main Avenue,” Rogers said.

In addition to the major projects to improve traffic flows, Hoch said the city is looking at increasing the frequency of bus routes and possibly including bus service to new developments.

“Somebody recently has been fostering the idea that the city is asleep at the wheel (on traffic issues); I would say, ‘au contraire.’ We’ve been wide awake for the whole ride,” Hoch said.

Rogers added that traffic would diminish if more people used mass transit, rode their bicycles or walked – a sentiment shared by Castro.

“This council would love it if more people used public transport and rode their bikes,” she said, adding that the council “very much supports” Bike to Work Day on June 25. “It’s really going to be a matter of whether people want to be a part of the solution.”








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