CDOT to make a few changes to the Smith Way intersection |

CDOT to make a few changes to the Smith Way intersection

John Colson

State highway workers will be putting in new warning signs and a realigned westbound turning lane along Highway 82 at Smith Way this spring, in an attempt to improve highway safety.

But, according to Colorado Department of Transportation officials, there is no likelihood of a traffic signal at the intersection anytime in the near future.

“We did not design this intersection for a future traffic signal,” said CDOT program engineer Ralph Trapani in a press conference at Aspen’s City Hall Tuesday.

In addition, he said, “There’s certainly not enough traffic there” to justify putting in a traffic light, despite the deadly recent history of the intersection.

The intersection, where Highway 82 meets Smith Way and Juniper Hills Road, is located about a mile west of the Brush Creek interchange. It has been under study since late last year, both by the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and CDOT.

Both studies noted that the intersection has been the site of numerous accidents since mid-1998, when CDOT completed its expansion of the highway to four lanes at that point.

Although the county study came up with a total of 28 accidents, while the CDOT analysis cataloged only 17, officials of both agencies concluded that some safety improvements were needed. The need was seen as especially urgent given the fact that one of the accidents studied, on New Year’s Eve of 1999, left four people dead.

According to the CDOT study, conducted by engineer Jake Kononov, of the 17 accidents related directly to the design of the intersection, 16 were broadsides, and most involved vehicles traveling west on Highway 82 colliding with cars pulling out of Smith Way intending to cross the westbound lanes.

Kononov and Trapani both pointed out that most drivers along that stretch of the highway are moving faster than the 55 mph speed limit when they reach Smith Way. This is perceived as a large part of the problem because drivers crossing the highway from Smith Road have difficulty gauging the distances to the speeding cars.

They also said, in agreement with the Pitkin County study, that the upvalley view from cars stopped at the Smith Way stop sign is blocked by any large downvalley-bound vehicles approaching the intersection in the right turn lane.

Moving the turn lane, CDOT believes, will clear the line of sight for motorists trying to look upvalley, and a painted “island” separating the turn lane from the main traffic lane will provide a safety buffer for cars.

When asked why it has taken two years since the fatal crash in 1999 to complete the study, Trapani said that accident had nothing to do with design issues, but with driver behavior.

“Somebody ran a stop sign,” Trapani said, citing information provided by the police who responded to the accident.

He also pointed out that CDOT had made some improvements already, moving the painted “stop bar” and the stop sign for Smith Way closer to the actual highway lane, to give drivers a better view of the highway lanes.

As for a traffic light, Trapani warned that it probably would cause unmanageable traffic snarls, especially for cars turning east, heading upvalley from Smith Way that might get “stacked up” in the median area.

And Kononov said that statistical studies show that traffic lights along rural, high speed highways tend to bring increased numbers of rear-end collisions.

So, he said, even if a traffic light could prevent a few broadside accidents, “We will probably introduce three to five times as many rear-end collisions.”

The agency will continue to monitor the situation once the changes are made, Trapani said. He added that it will be at least a year before they have enough information accumulated to make statistical conclusions about the effectiveness of the changes.

He said that the construction of the new turning lane may involve closing a lane of traffic, but that the engineers are hoping that will not be the case. The paving of the new lane cannot be started until the weather warms and local asphalt batch plants begin production, which usually happens in May, he said.

The improvements are expected to cost no more than $250,000, Trapani said, although actual cost estimates were not available this week.

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