Prineville eyes ways to ease congestion

Police say Third Street traffic leading to more accidents

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: November 21. 2006 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – Sitting in his office that looks out onto Third Street in Prineville, Police Chief Eric Bush said he frequently sees accidents and traffic violations occur on the busy thoroughfare.

Still, he was surprised recently when he stepped into the crosswalk in front of the police department and witnessed a rear-end collision.

“The westbound vehicle stopped for me, and the vehicle behind plowed right into it,” Bush said. “Here I am as the chief of police, walking across the crosswalk in uniform, and accidents are happening right in front of me.”

With the number of accidents and traffic citations in the downtown corridor on the rise, city officials are looking for ways to make Third Street easier to navigate and more pedestrian-friendly.

On the west side of Prineville, U.S. Highway 26 and state Highway 126 both funnel drivers onto Third Street. This is the main corridor through the heart of downtown, lined with stores and the historic Crook County Courthouse. Third Street emerges on the east side of town as Highway 26, making it a site for heavy commercial as well as residential traffic.

Last year, a consultant for the city’s public works department was seriously injured after being struck in a crosswalk in front of the police station.

“I’m alive and well, I’ve recovered 90 percent,” the consultant, Ron Kleinschmit, said. “I’m cool, but I would love to see them put a median down the street.”

Bush said pedestrian accidents downtown are on the rise. According to police records, in 2004 there were 60 reported car accidents on Third Street, not including minor incidents; that number was up 13 percent to 68 in 2005. From January through October of this year, police responded to 53 accidents in the area.

The city scrapped plans for a median in the middle of Third Street between City Hall and the Crook County Courthouse because it would have prevented eastbound travelers from turning left onto Dunham Street, blocking access to a business. Now, city planners are studying the possible socioeconomic impact of extending Ninth Street to allow some drivers to bypass downtown.

The City Council wants to punch through Ninth Street, which intersects with Highway 26 on the west side of the city, to connect with Laughlin Road. The route would roughly parallel Third Street and offer another east-west access through Prineville.

City Manager Robb Corbett said he has heard concerns from city and county employees about crossing Third Street to travel between City Hall and the county courthouse, which face each other on opposite sides of the street.

“There appears to be some unique characteristics to this part of Third Street that might warrant some extra consideration, but at this point we’re not quite sure what the solution to that is,” Corbett said.

Corbett said the plan for extending Ninth Street is “five years out;” another construction project that would direct some cars to Second Street instead of Third will start in the spring. City planners are also looking for grant money to add “bulb-outs” – extensions to curbs on busy corners – to sidewalks downtown.

“There’s a large number of residents who live in Juniper Canyon, which is south of Prineville, and those people have only one way in and one way out, and that is right through the middle of town,” Corbett said. “So that has a significant impact, particularly as that grows it just adds to the congestion of the downtown community.”

One problem with the Ninth Street plan is that the route the City Council made a preliminary decision on in January would displace Wagner’s Price Slasher, a local grocery store. Terry Harper, who owns the business, said the lack of a store in the north end of town could create even more traffic because the other main grocery stores are on Third Street.

“It would be a negative impact, of course, there’s a lot of people that walk to this store that live around here,” Harper said.

A draft of a socioeconomic analysis done by Prineville city staff members concluded, “We do not believe that there is a special population that can only be served by Wagner’s Price Slasher … While no one in Prineville is likely to starve without Wagner’s Price Slasher, none of the alternatives is likely to substitute completely for the familiar and convenient neighborhood market.”

Harper said he does not know of any available land nearby for a supermarket. The analysis also included two other options for lengthening Ninth Street. One option would displace six homes and one business; a second would displace one home in addition to Wagner’s Price Slasher; and a third would displace three businesses.

As city officials grapple with the options for rerouting some traffic around Third Street, several owners of downtown stores said there is definitely more congestion, but it hasn’t had a great impact on their businesses.

“(The speed) is just real creepy-crawly down the road,” said Darla Estes, who owns Bread of Life Bagel Market with her husband, Steve. “Where we are there seems to be a good amount of parking, I know a couple blocks down farther into town it’s really hard to find a spot, but kind of right where we are we just seem to do OK – I don’t think anybody’s ever complained.”

Steve Estes said he is not sure how rerouting some traffic to Ninth Street would affect the volume of business in his store, which benefits from the “constant flow” of traffic on Third.

“I know that it’s going to take away some business, and I know that there is some people that see my sign and stop in,” he said. “I’d rather it stay like it is, but I know it’s not going to be able to because the town just can’t handle it.”

One local tourist spot, the Bowman Memorial Museum, is situated on the traffic hub at the corner of Third and Main streets. Gordon Gillespie, the museum’s director and a member of the Prineville City Council, said that the traffic outside the museum gives visitors a good sense of the growth the town is experiencing.

Gillespie said that, even though finding ways for traffic to move more smoothly through downtown could ease congestion, it could also make conditions more dangerous for pedestrians.

“I think most local people want to continue to have a downtown that feels like a welcoming place, a place they can meet their neighbors and visit the businesses down here in comfort and not have to worry about traffic,” he said.

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