The Thrill of the Fight

I billed an August 10 meeting on medians as a (polite) fight between Clark County Commissioner Chairman Tom Mielke and Clark County Public Works Director Pete Capell.

The meeting, I’m happy to report, did not disappoint. Capell even added a photograph of boxing gloves to his PowerPoint presentation and Clark County Administrator Bill Barron arranged for the opening of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” to play after he made introductions.

Capell sat at a long table with teammates Steve Schulte (transportation manager), Bill Wright (traffic engineering and operations manager) and Mark Wilsdon (risk manager whose mere presence serves as a reminder to commissioners that people will sue the county any chance they get.)

The professionals sat facing Commissioners Mielke, Steve Stuart and Marc Boldt. At the commissioners’ table was Barron, their trainer.

The first question for staff? Why are concrete median barrier walls called “Jersey barriers”? Schulte researched the term and reported in his Aug. 12 meeting notes that the walls were first used in New Jersey in about 1955.

OK, enough small talk.

Mielke, and Stuart, made it clear that they feel medians can be unfair barriers to businesses when drivers are prevented from making left-hand turns.

Capell’s team made it clear that, while medians are the default standard they do look at each situation individually and Capell can override the county’s road standards by signing off on a “road modification.”

It’s a matter of striking a balance between access and safety, both sides agreed.

Mielke said while “most” drivers in the county are good about following traffic rules, some drivers are unafraid to drive right over the tail of a center median island if necessary.

He later clarified that he was talking about himself.

Capell listed the benefits of medians: they are “low cost accident prevention devices” that improve traffic flow because traffic can back up when vehicles are waiting to make unprotected turns.

He acknowledged the adverse impacts: they restrict access and can result in U-turns which can be unsafe.

Capell said medians are required within 125 feet of collector intersections and 250 feet of arterial intersections and engineers must follow a “standard of care” when designing public streets.

Wright said some streets that may feel over-regulated were designed years ago and made to accommodate traffic that, due to the slowdown in county growth, never materialized.

The county has been revising traffic numbers, Wright said.

Capell’s department looked at several years’ worth of collision reports in Clark County at six intersections in Hazel Dell and concluded 13 percent of the accidents would have been avoided had medians been in place.

Capell finished what had been billed as a tutorial by saying medians are one of his staff’s most difficult decisions and the highest priority on the county’s roads must be safety.

As a concession to commissioners, he suggested that when road standards are updated the code could be changed so a road modification would not be required to design a road without a median.

The final thought the engineers wanted to leave with commissioners? There are worse things they could be doing than installing medians. Wright included this photograph of a roundabout in England.


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