Los Alamos County Public Works Director Juan Rael. Courtesy photo
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
With the impending return of Los Alamos Public Schools, there has been some conversation in the community about how the increased number of school buses, LAPS vehicles and private vehicles on local streets. Of particular concern is the possibility that Trinity Drive and Diamond Drive will be even more congested than they have been in recent weeks since a large part of Canyon Road has been closed to through traffic.
The Los Alamos Reporter sat down with Los Alamos County Public Works Director Juan Rael to discuss how the traffic situation got to where it is at this point, what measures Traffic & Streets have already taken, and some recommendations for the community to help ease the congestion at peak times of the day.
Rael addressed the “road diet” in place on Trinity Drive from the Los Alamos Medical Center to Oppenheimer, which changed the traffic pattern from four lanes to two lanes. He said the road diet discussion all started when The Hill Apartments east of LAMC were being considered.
“There was discussion at that time about realigning 35th Street and 36th Street to make it a four-way intersection. It actually started in Transportation Board. At that time the County hired a consultant engineer to do the analysis and it showed that it would have an acceptable level of service – that a road diet would work, basically,” Rael said.
That was in 2019 and in 2020 the state Department of Transportation decided to repave Trinity Drive, which is also NM502 as it comes through town. A County Council resolution to implement the road diet first failed by a vote of 4/3 but was placed back on the agenda and passed 3/4. See https://losalamosreporter.com/2020/06/13/new-traffic-pattern-on-trinity-drive-following-new-county-council-vote-on-road-diet/
Rael said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, there wasn’t full traffic coming and going to Los Alamos National Laboratory. Since 2020, the County has been evaluating the traffic level and with the closure of Canyon Road, it is the worst it has ever been, he said.
“It was bad before they closed Canyon Road but that closure is making things a lot worse,” he said.
The Canyon Road Project had been on the County’s Capital Improvements Projects schedule for years. When the project was original put out for bids, only one bid had been received.
“It was a non-responsive bid, which means they didn’t have all the documents in order, so in order to keep the project moving forward we re-bid it and then we got just one bid, and it was high. Everything that’s coming across is high,” he said.
Because of the condition of the road and the much-needed upgrades, particularly for the storm drain and utilities, the project was funded to move forward. Having to rebid the project meant that it is a little behind schedule and Canyon Road has to be closed in order to do the rebuild.
“That’s what really triggered the bad delays we’re seeing right now. We’ve done a lot of work from the beginning of the project up to the present to try and alleviate as many of the variables that we have control over. Signal timing is one we hear about quite a bit and we began working on it right away. We looked at the signal timing at both Diamond and Canyon, and Diamond and Trinity. Those signals have been adjusted and tweaked several times to allow the maximum amount of left turns onto Trinity We’re constantly monitoring that and making adjustments,” Rael said.
In addition, Rael said after observing the number of vehicles getting stuck in the Canyon/Diamond intersection, a sign was added asking motorists not to block the intersection, which makes the problem worse.
“Because we were noticing that cars were in the left lane that were trying to go straight towards the Lab, so we also added a sign that says, ‘LANL traffic keep right’. That has helped a lot. It’s not going to solve it but that has helped get some of the cars out of the left lane. Those are some of the things we’ve been able to do that we have control over. We see the problem as being really bad twice a day – during lunch hour when people are going back to work and at the end of the day. That’s when we also see the big slow down on Trinity,” he said.
Rael noted that some of the chatter Traffic & Streets is hearing is that people want to go back to the old four-lane configuration on Trinity. He said when the road diet was approved in 2020, Council wanted it brought back before them to see how it was doing.
“Right now we’re taking actual counts of the vehicles because we want to get an accurate account of how many cares are on there right now so that we can do the same calculations that were originally done to make sure it gives an actual picture of the level of service. We don’t need a study to tell us that but it helps us to show the data point of how it’s operating according to traffic engineering formulas,” he said.
Rael said the Canyon/Diamond intersection was bad even before the Canyon Road construction work began. The reason is that if that intersection was planned today, it would not pass any sort of engineering standards because the signal lights intersections on Diamond Drive are so close together that they don’t allow for proper spacing.
“One of the intersections would have to be spaced out and access to the side streets would be an issue. We couldn’t solve that today. It would take a lot of right-of-way acquisition either from the hospital to the south or from the school to the north. There are residential streets tying in as well as the ‘Lemon Lot’. We’ve built ourselves into a corner with this sort of situation. Those are the fixed conditions that we have and we can’t change them right now. That is why we’re seeing a lot of this congestion – because those intersections aren’t properly in place – but there’s nothing we can do right now,” he said.
Asked why the road diet can’t be removed on Trinity, Rael said to change it back would require a couple of things.
“If Council told us tomorrow to change it back this is what would happen. First of all we would have to obliterate the old striping, which would have to be ground off or power-washed off if that’s even a possibility. Both of those would require closures in order to work safely so that just makes it way worse. We can’t do that now,” he said. “The Canyon Road variable wasn’t known at the time the road diet was put in place. We could have theoretically moved cars onto Canyon Road but we would have been seeing tons of backup on Central Avenue all day long. If this was reversed, Central Avenue would just be a nightmare because it’s narrower and smaller. Restriping is not impossible but it would take some time. I don’t think I would recommend that right now during the Canyon Road closure.”
Asked if it would be possible to use cones and barrels to alter the traffic pattern through the road diet area, Rael said he probably would not recommend using traffic cones either because it would probably be a maintenance nightmare of always trying to keep them in place.
“We’d have conflicting movements throughout the whole corridor of trying to get through the intersections, the left turns, all those different things. And we’d probably need thousands of cones. With Canyon Road being closed, if we were to go back to the four lanes we wouldn’t have a dedicated bike lane east to west in the community,” he said. “It’s also important to note that this is temporary and that it’s because Canyon Road is closed.”
The actual timeframe for the completion of the Canyon Road project is late October or November Rael said and although he agrees it is currently “painful” so far the work is moving along well.
“The contractor is doing a really good job of keeping that traffic moving and coordinating with the Aquatic Center, the apartments and the Catholic Church,” he said.
Rael noted that there is never a good time to do the work and that if it wasn’t done this summer the same issues would arise next summer.
“Our biggest recommendation to the public would be if we could get people to carpool to and from the Lab temporarily because getting the number of vehicles off the road would really help solve this. There are tweaks we can do such as signal timing and signage and we’re exhausting those temporary changes that we can do right now,” he said.
“If more students were to ride school buses or public transportation that would be great. Kids being dropped off and using the overpass would be a big solution too because it would reduce the turns down into Canyon Road. We’re starting conversations with LANL to see if they can encourage carpooling which would be ideal but we can’t tell them to do that. If they could stagger lunchtimes or stagger exit times at lunch and at the end of the day that would really help. Just reducing the number of cars during the peak times would really help,” he said.