Saturday, May 4, 2013
The current brouhaha over eliminating a lane of traffic when Rose Street is repaved gives me a strong feeling of deja vu.
It was more than 30 years ago when traffic engineers pondered the traffic flow in the downtown area and saw an opportunity to, um, improve the situation.
The idea pitched — and approved by the City Council — called for establishing “gateway intersections” to the downtown area. This is why when you drive on Alder Street it turns to Poplar Street with a little curve to the left and Rose Street to Isaacs Avenue with a little curve to the right.
These new intersections had Walla Walla fired up — and the town was even more ticked off when some new road changes were unveiled. Poplar and Rose were made one-way streets so drivers would circle Main Street.
There was grumbling about the plan, just as there is today about the recently approved overhaul of Rose Street from 13th Avenue to the remnants of the Blue Mountain Mall.
That grumbling turned to a frothing rage when the one-way streets opened. Now, I can’t recall for certain whether Poplar was a westbound street because drivers, despite the new signs, were still using it as a two-way. Sure, it got better after a few days, but not a day went by when somebody wasn’t driving the wrong way.
Citizens demanded change. L&G Ranch Supply had a run on pitchforks (OK, I made that up, but I’m sure it felt like that to the City Council members).
It wasn’t long before the one-way streets were again two-way. Not much could be done about the gateway intersections, but the traffic engineers made it work.
I was more amused than disturbed by the ruckus, but I was new to town so I didn’t know any different. I moved here to become a U-B reporter just before the uproar.
It was a good lesson about Walla Walla politics. The people like stuff a certain way regardless of what’s trendy or what the experts say. Walla Wallans have an independent streak with a twist. That twist is the long memories of residents and affection for the area’s history.
The traffic engineers might have been correct that the gateway configuration was more efficient and all. Being right and 50 cents would get you a cup of coffee here in 1980.
Walla Walla did not care. It wanted the streets the way they were.
The traffic engineers today might be correct about the traffic patterns on Rose Street. In theory, that section of roadway could end up being statistically safer and the turns on and off side streets might well be easier. Being right and five bucks will get you a latte in town nowadays.
Folks like Rose Street the way it is currently designed (sans potholes) — four lanes wide. Few people, it seems, are buying the wisdom of the center lane as a turn lane and the need for a bicycle path both directions.
Assuming nothing changes and Rose does become three lanes, I guarantee (with conviction) citizens are not going to stop complaining about it until it becomes four lanes again.
Perhaps the current swirl of disdain for three lanes stems from the changes made to Second Avenue through the heart of downtown in 2000. Second was four lanes and there were concerns about accidents at the intersections of Rose, Main and Poplar.
The city engineer at the time pushed for three lanes because the studies showed it would reduce accidents.
The switch might have reduced accidents but it certainly increased the grumbling of drivers downtown — particularly during the morning and evening rush minutes. Traffic sometimes backs up on Second from Poplar to Main to the point that people sometimes have to wait for the traffic signal to change a second time.
Sure, this happens all the time in other cities in the state. Walla Wallans don’t care. They don’t live in those places, they live in Walla Walla.
I think what it comes down to is a couple of well-worn phrases.
The first is, “All politics is local,” which is attributed to U.S. House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, Jr.
The second is, “You’ve got to know the territory.” That comes from the well-known Broadway show “The Music Man” that, serendipitously, will be performed this summer at the Fort Walla Walla Amphitheater.
Walla Walla has a history of being emotional about its streets. That’s just the nature of Walla Walla’s politics. But apparently the City Council, the traffic experts and others who pushed three lanes didn’t know the territory.