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Master plan proposes fix for University Parkway, West Walnut traffic congestion

Zach Vance • Aug 9, 2018 at 11:53 PM

When the public was asked about the redevelopment of West Walnut Street, a topic that kept coming up was solving the traffic conundrum at the intersection of University Parkway.

With the West Walnut Street master plan almost complete, Kimley-Horn consultant Ben Miskelly proposed a two-pronged approach to solving the issue Thursday during a two-plus hour workshop with the Johnson City Regional Planning Commission and the West Walnut Street task force.

Kimley-Horn consultants, hired by the city to create a comprehensive master plan for the corridor connecting downtown Johnson City and East Tennessee State University, is first suggesting the installation of a median on University Parkway to prevent cars from turning left onto West Walnut Street.

“The proposed median will help prevent traffic queuing into State of Franklin and provide a refuge for pedestrians crossing University Parkway. This change will still allow full access to the corridor for other movements but will restrict the movement that has caused the most collisions over time,” the written draft proposal of the master plan states.

“In addition, this median will prohibit southbound left turns into driveways mid-block along University Parkway. As the corridor redevelops, this median will help with potential queuing and will provide a visible and safe spot for crossings.”

At first, the median would not physically prevent cars from turning onto West Walnut Street, but it would just fill the current left-turn lane at the red light.

According to the consultants, this would be a temporary measure because ETSU is contemplating plans to build a parking garage at the corner of University Parkway and State of Franklin. From his discussions with ETSU officials, Miskelly said he thought design for the parking garage could begin within 18 months to a few years.

Until that plan is finalized, Miskelly and his team recommend Johnson City implement the median and turn restriction as a “pilot” project so traffic patterns can be further studied before extending the median all the way across the intersection, physically preventing cars from entering West Walnut or entering campus from West Walnut.

The demise of the left-turn lane will certainly discourage traffic from entering the nearby McDonald’s, but if the city follows through with extending Cherokee Street to State of Franklin, as the master plan recommends, that would provide another avenue for traffic to enter the fast-food restaurant.

The second phase of fixing traffic congestion at the intersection is by addressing the proximity and frequency of traffic signals where West Walnut Street and State of Franklin intersect University Parkway. 

“While the signal at West Walnut will likely still be needed for pedestrians, bicyclists and buses, the frequency to which it stalls University Parkway can be reduced significantly with the removal of left-hand and through traffic movements on to West Walnut Street,” the draft proposal states.

Miskelly said his team is still analyzing the most efficient way to get pedestrians and cyclists across the West Walnut Street and University Parkway intersection. He said most public input recommended a bridge, which would be extremely expensive. Another possibility is stopping all lanes of traffic intermittently with a special light for pedestrian crossings.

Because access to ETSU would be reduced at West Walnut Street, the master plan estimates that traffic will increase onto campus from Maple Street. Miskelly suggested the city look at installing another traffic light at Maple Street and University Parkway, which would be far enough away from State of Franklin to not cause queuing issues, and would also be useful for pedestrian traffic coming from the Tree Streets.

“In relation to these changes, it is likely that ETSU and the city should work together to plan a mid-block northbound connection between Maple Street and the proposed parking structure,” the master plan suggests.

The West Walnut Street master plan is currently in the final stages of development. Its primary goal will be to fix stormwater issues, encourage development, address traffic and parking issues and make the overall district more pedestrian- and bike-friendly.

Miskelly showed officials Thursday a proposed schedule for phasing in the plan. The first phase of the longterm plan entailed creating a curb-cut consolidation plan, designing the streetscape and stormwater park, implementing a “form-based” zoning code, incorporating West Walnut into the city-wide wayfinding signage plan and relocating power lines underground.

The Planning Commission is expected to vote on the master plan in the coming weeks. Kimley-Horn is currently working on cost projections for the longterm plan, which should be ready in a couple of weeks.

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