Relieving Hanford commute traffic headache remains work in progress

Government officials don't have any quick fixes planned to address the congestion caused by thousands of Hanford workers trying to drive through or around Richland each workday.

But some more modest fixes are planned that include upgrading Richland traffic signal control and expanding the Ben Franklin Transit van pool fleet.

The Department of Energy, concerned about safety during the morning and evening commutes at Hanford, already has announced changes it will try in the secure portion of the nuclear reservation.

They include making Route 4 South a one-way road from central Hanford to the Wye Barricade north of Richland during the late afternoon commute. And the speed limit will be raised south of the Wye Barricade from 55 to 60 mph.

But DOE's control ends at Hanford's border as workers funnel through Richland on George Washington Way or on Stevens Boulevard and the bypass highway.

During the peak evening commute, 3,000 cars an hour crowd the bypass highway around Richland, frustrating drivers with slowdowns and back-ups at traffic lights.

That's up 10 percent in just a few years, said Corey Hert, assistant traffic engineer for the Washington state Department of Transportation.

During the evening commute from about 4:45 to 5:45 p.m., traffic can back up on the bypass highway at the intersections with Duportail Street, Van Giesen Street and Aaron Drive.

But aggravating congestion more than added traffic on the bypass highway is the growth of the Tri-Cities, including development in West Richland, Hert said.

More traffic is trying to cross the highway, particularly to get to West Richland, and northbound traffic on the bypass going left on Van Giesen to West Richland also slows southbound Hanford traffic.

"Traffic signals are a necessary evil," said Stephen Stairs, a Richland traffic engineer. "You have got pedestrians who want to cross the road. You have got vehicles that want to get on the road."

The state uses a 150-second cycle with its traffic lights to move traffic in all four directions at the bypass intersections. Five different plans run 24 hours, based on anticipated traffic patterns.

The entire bypass traffic light system is retimed at least once a year, and state traffic officials make frequent visits.

They'll make a visit this week in response to requests by Herald readers and others to reassess the traffic flow to see if any changes might relieve congestion, Hert said.

They'll be back again after changes are made to traffic patterns on the Hanford site because those definitely will affect bypass highway traffic, he said. DOE has asked its contractor, Mission Support Alliance, to begin work on the Hanford changes immediately.

North of the bypass highway, traffic on Stevens Drive is controlled by the city, which is working with grant money to improve traffic signals throughout Richland, Stairs said. The present communication system used to control stoplights is not reliable, he said.

But in early 2011 the city plans to have new software and a new communication system installed to account for traffic demand at all 52 of the city's traffic lights.

That should improve the Hanford commute, but Stairs warned there still will be a lot of traffic trying to reach homes in Pasco, south Richland and Kennewick.

Additional bridges could be a long-term solution, he said. Richland is pursuing adding a Duportail Street bridge over the Yakima River, which could reduce congestion on the bypass highway near Aaron Drive.

There's also discussion of adding a fourth Columbia River bridge in the Tri-Cities. If it were added in north Richland, it would provide another route for Hanford traffic to bypass Richland.

Things that would help Richland include more Hanford ride sharing or adjusting work schedules to stagger quitting times, Stairs recently told a Hanford Advisory Board committee.

Ben Franklin Transit already has 220 of its 312 vans assigned to Hanford workers, said Terry DeJuan, transit's ride share supervisor.

The van pool is particularly popular with workers for Bechtel National, which is building the Hanford vitrification plant in the center of the nuclear reservation. The contractor offers a subsidy for van groups, and, of the 220 vans that commute to Hanford, 98 go to the vit plant.

The Hanford vans reduce traffic to Hanford by 1,760 cars a day by DeJuan's calculation, based on one car for every van passenger.

Ben Franklin's van pool already is the third largest in the state, and it expects to add 30 vans by early September. Forty groups already are on the waiting list for those vans, including 28 groups that commute to Hanford.

The vans hold 12 to 15 riders, but for Hanford workers with long rides, equipment and lunches, nine riders daily is a realistic average, DeJuan said. There are few openings on those vans.

For workers who can't get into a van pool, he recommends private ride sharing. One good option is www.rideshareonline.com, a statewide website launched two months ago to match riders, he said. It's so new that not many Tri-City area residents are registered on it yet, but it is expected to grow.

DOE also plans to add information at www.hanford.gov to make it easier for Hanford workers to find alternate ways to get to work to reduce congestion, said DOE spokesman Geoff Tyree.

The Hanford website will link to www.wsdot.wa.gov/partners/commute/TravelOptions.htm.

DOE also is continuing to look at options to improve safety by reducing congestion, DOE officials said at the Hanford Advisory Board committee meeting. According to a new traffic study, 8,300 cars or trucks enter Hanford on a workday through its three security barricades.

Making changes in shift times has been considered, but it's no quick fix because of the many projects, contractors and subcontractors coordinating work at Hanford.

But DOE will look at one option suggested at the committee meeting. Some workers entering the barricades in the morning are waved through by guards after a quick look at their employee badges, but certain badges require more time to be checked by the guards. Having separate lanes for the different types of badges could speed traffic for some workers.

There also has been preliminary talk at Hanford of reviving the site's commuter bus system, possibly when the vitrification plant begins operating in 2019.

For 50 years until 1995, the federal government had a bus system to take workers to and from their work places at Hanford. Before it was shut down, it was used routinely by 1,200 Hanford employees who paid $1.50 a day. But DOE still was spending $4,000 per rider per year to subsidize the system, making it too costly to continue, DOE said then.

Funding remains the issue with a site bus system, said Karen Flynn, the Hanford DOE director of site infrastructure services.