STANFIELD — Stanfield might put Highway 395 on a diet, but it has nothing to do with counting calories.
The “road diet” is a solution the Oregon Department of Transportation has begun implementing for some cities where a major highway sends traffic speeding through the center of town. To force more drivers to go the speed limit, the department narrows down the lanes of travel — in Stanfield’s case, from five lanes to three.
ODOT is planning a major repaving project along Highway 395 through downtown Stanfield, adding traffic-calming features such as stamped concrete crosswalks, wheel chair ramps and “bulb-outs” extending the sidewalk further into intersections, in an effort to signal to drivers that they are crossing through a town and should slow down accordingly.
“A common problem, as you guys are aware of, is when you have a five-lane highway through a town people speed,” ODOT engineer Bryan Strasser told the Stanfield City Council during a presentation on Tuesday. “When we think of traffic calming, we think of things that signal to the driver that they can’t just go ripping down the highway.”
He told the council he believed Stanfield would benefit from a road diet as well, keeping the center turn lane but going down from two lanes of travel on either side to just one in each direction.
The city council was on board with the other improvements, but wanted more information and input from the public before committing to the road diet part of the plan.
Strasser said he was skeptical of the road diet method at first, but after seeing it work in Milton-Freewater he was a fan.
ODOT worked with Milton-Freewater last summer to take the section of Highway 11 that makes up South Main Street from two lanes in each direction to one lane in each direction plus a center turn lane. The city turned the extra space in the right-of-way into a bike lane and additional parking.
City manager Linda Hall told the East Oregonian that the city agreed to the plan because they were concerned about pedestrian safety, particularly after passing a school bond that would lead to more children trying to cross the highway.
“Traffic has slowed down,” she said. “It’s been very, very successful for Milton-Freewater. We’re very happy with it.”
There had been a few complaints from residents, she said, but overall the city had worked hard to do citizen outreach and demonstrate the benefits of helping traffic slow down through the city.
“Before, when you would park on South Main you would literally take your life in your hands trying to open your driver’s side door and get out into traffic,” she said.
Milton-Freewater has upward of 3,000 more vehicles per day traveling through compared to Stanfield, but a higher percentage of Stanfield’s traffic is semitrucks.
Strasser and traffic and roadway manager Daniel Fine told the Stanfield city council that taking away the “passing environment” in the city would help people slow down — if a semitruck is going the speed limit, it means everyone behind it has to as well.
Fine said ODOT had seen pedestrian deaths over the years where a truck stopped for a pedestrian but another driver struck the person after trying to pass the truck, not realizing why they had stopped. The combination of bulb-outs and fewer lanes would significantly reduce the 80 feet pedestrians currently have to cross.
The improvements would also benefit drivers trying to turn onto Highway 395 from a side street, who would have a better line of sight and would only have to watch for two lanes of oncoming traffic instead of four.
The space previously taken up by lanes of travel could be used to add bike lanes and additional parking or to expand sidewalks.
City manager Blair Larsen — who was at his final city council meeting before departing for a new job in Sweet Home — told the council he believed ODOT’s project would help increase safety and create a more “vibrant” downtown.
“Right now Stanfield doesn’t have a sense of place,” he said. “People don’t feel like they’re going through a town here ... I think this will reap dividends for Main Street businesses by making a place people want to walk and shop.”
While councilors told ODOT unanimously that they were in favor of most of the repaving project, including the bulb-outs, they wanted more time to think about the number of travel lanes. Some were concerned that it would increase traffic congestion too much and traffic would get too backed up at red lights.
Mayor Thomas McCann said he didn’t want to make any decisions about the number of lanes without getting input from the public, and the council agreed to schedule a public hearing for July 16.
A city survey during the latter half of 2018 did ask a question about reducing the number of travel lanes, and only 20% of respondents were in favor.
While taking Stanfield down to three lanes could help slow traffic, some cities with three lanes through town complain about traffic speeds as well. Highway 730 is already only three lanes where it runs through city of Umatilla, but ODOT is planning a $6 million repaving project there with bulb-outs, new lighting and other traffic-calming features.
Engineering for the Stanfield renovation, paid for by ODOT, is expected to start later this year, construction won’t start for at least another year.