Trinity Road Diet To Stay For Now, County Hopes One Lane On Canyon Road May Be Opened

Recent early evening traffic congestion at Canyon Road intersection. Photo by Maire O’Neill/


Although a motion by Los Alamos County Council Chair Randall Ryti and seconded by Councilor David Reagor failed at Tuesday’s work session, there is much more to the story and some good news concerning recent traffic congestion at the intersection of Diamond Drive and Trinity as well as Diamond Drive and Canyon Road. For now the road diet on Trinity stays but there is hope that one lane on Canyon Road may be opened relatively soon to provide some relief.

Ryti moved that “Council directs the County Manager to develop an interim four-lane plan for Trinity Drive that meets NMDOT requirements; and I further move that the Council directs the County Manager to develop and a plan and implementation of restriping Trinity to four lanes to start immediately after the Canyon Road Project is completed”. The motion failed 2/4.

Councilors listened to extensive background information from County Public Works Director Juan Rael on steps that have already been taken to improve the congestion situation, as well as steps that have been explored and solutions currently under discussion with the Canyon Road Project contractor TLC Plumbing & Utility. The discussion lasted more than an hour.

Rael said the project started later than desired because it had to be rebid. He noted that the work zone is very complex due to the eight utility crossings involved, which are perpendicular to and not parallel to the roadway adding some complexity to the project.  Concrete infrastructure is being replaced on both sides of the roadway and a new storm drain is being installed to help with the drainage which will add to the longevity of the road. Rael said the good news is that the project is currently on schedule to be completely done by November time frame.

Monitoring and real-time adjustments for traffic signals commenced immediately after the backups were first observed especially on the Canyon and Trinity signals on the left turn lanes,” Rael said. Based on observations the County also added signage to not block the intersection and for Los Alamos National Laboratory traffic to keep right so that it might take a shorter time for them to travel through the congested corridor.

Rael said Public Works coordinated with Los Alamos Public Schools both before school started and since then. An electronic message board was added at Diamond and Sycamore alerting travelers about the upcoming delays on that corridor. A public outreach campaign called “Drive Less” encouraging alternative modes of transportation.

“We have explored with the Department of Transportation the possibility of altering the two-lane configuration on the current road diet so that it would be a two-lane direction mornings – a.m. in the westbound and p.m. in the eastbound. That was almost a non-starter with DOT because there were serious safety concerns over adding two lanes and keeping one lane in the other direction due to the number of left turns that were in there and the potential for people to get in another area and for head-on collisions. They weren’t even interested in discussing that any further,” Rael said.

He said more recently Los Alamos Police Department was asked to have an officer on the Diamond Drive corridor.

“That has helped in a couple of different ways, most notably in cars in the intersection which has really been cut down when an officer is present and reduced the number of folks running through the intersections without a green light,” Rael said.

 He noted that LAPD officers have driven all directions of the congested area and have reported an average increased travel time of about 10 minutes with the maximum at about 15 minutes.

“We are continuing to have conversations with our contractor on the Canyon Road Project about either expediting the work, looking at the potential for extra crews to come in and whether they can work extended hours. We got word back from them that they’re unable to hire additional crews because of the current employment issues throughout the state,” Rael said. “The next option we’re exploring with them is if there’s a way we can work with them to get one lane of travel open, which is not the way the project is currently planned. They have a utility crew and a concrete crew with a crew working on each side of the street. What we’re asking them to do is work both crews on one side of the street in order to make it go faster to allow us to at least use one lane, which will provide relief. “

He said the contract hasn’t agreed to that yet but that they think they might be able to do it which would reopen things earlier, possibly the second to third week of October but none of that is final yet. A change order would have to be in place for the project contract.

“We’re also looking at some of the signals at West Jemez Road going into the Lab, which is not under County control and West Road, which the County controls, to see if there is a way that we can stagger the amount or the release of the cars through those two intersections to try to coincide with the left turn movement onto Trinity from Diamond.” Rael said. “Think about ramp metering in larger cities where there are one or two cars that can go through so a little more controlled merging can happen. It’s something completely out of the box here that we’re looking at. There’s usually a ramp right next to where it happens. Here it is a little spread out but we are exploring to see if we can do something like this at West Road which would have a little more potential because we can control that signal along with the signal at Trinity.”

Rael said what’s being seen is that once traffic gets into the stream onto Trinity, it’s the pinch points of the merge point at Trinity and Diamond and what comes off the bridge where those two movements have to merge and then going westbound past Oppenheimer that are the problem.

“This would help in the p.m. with the big number of cars that come out of LANL across the bridge and then try to merge on with the left turns,” he said.

Chair Ryti asked Rael to talk about the possible temporary restriping of Trinity which they had discussed Monday. Rael said they hadn’t been able to contact the state yet on that.

“The discussion would be if we could put four lanes of Trinity back onto the three-lane striped configuration of the road between Diamond and Oppenheimer. What that would essentially be is what we refer to in the industry as a work zone with the orange barrels where things are different to what is actually on the road – either stripes or signs. Short-term there are some challenges there. We would have to talk to the state and get their approval because after all Trinity Drive and is NM502 and is under state control,” Rael said.

He noted that a very specialized traffic control contractor would have to be brought on because of number of devices and the amount of staffing it would take to dedicate to that. A formal traffic control plan would have to be submitted to the state if they agreed to it and the County would have to go through their whole process.

“A small temporary road closure would be needed so that work could be done safely by the workers setting up the devices. Some of the other concerns we might have would be removing the bike lanes while the bike lanes on Canyon Road are closed. We typically see cars go slower through a work zone. The maintenance of those devices is something that would be of concern because it would only take one or two of the devices to get into one of the four lanes and the response time for fixing that might be a bit delayed,” Rael said.

For a permanent change back to a four-lane configuration, Rael said DOT would want to see a resolution from Council reversing the resolution passed at their request when the road diet was instituted.

“The County staff would then have to get an engineering plan to have that striping go back because it’s more than just putting four lanes back. There will have to be an actual engineered document that shows where the stops are, where the starts are, where the left turns are and things like that. That would take a couple of weeks,” he said. “We would need to solicit quotes from a contractor that does this just because the eradication and the striping of that is beyond our capacity. We have striping equipment but it is more for maintenance; we just go over existing lines.”

Rael said there’s actually a lot to laying out new striping and Public Works wants to make sure all those things are right. Lining up a contract would take a couple of weeks and then the County would have to get on the contractor’s schedule.

“At that point it is out of our hands because we would be at their mercy as to when they could get here. So best case would be two weeks and worst case would be several more weeks after that. The contractor would then have to get a traffic control plan through the state, which would probably take a week or so and they would have to close the road for a longer period because they would actually have to obliterate the existing striping either by power-washing which may work or may not or actually obliterating it which is sort of a grinding process. Then they would have to do the new striping and that could take a week. This would make the time frame late October or November and that’s if everything hits,” he said.

Councilor David Reagor asked if the road could be temporarily painted with black paint over the lines and four lanes slapped down. Rael said DOT specs would not allow for painting over lines even in a temporary work zone.

“I don’t think that is really an option. The concern is that there would be conflicting striping and the paint would wear out pretty fast, because as soon as that paint wears off, obviously we would have two yellow lines for example so close together that there could be confusion that could be a safety concern,” he said.

Councilor Melanee Hand asked Rael if he could give his opinion on which option would be the best.

“I’ve thought long and hard about this and I’ve thought about every possible scenario and every possible action. My conclusion would be that since we are in a temporary condition, it is functioning – I think we all agree it is not functioning as well as we would all like it to be – but I think with the fact we do have a light at the end of the tunnel, which is the completion of Canyon Road, being able to keep it in its existing configuration would be my vote if I had one,” he responded.

Rael believes opening up one lane on Canyon has merit because that would relieve traffic pressure during the peak congestion times.

“That’s a short-term solution – being able to get some cars out of those left turn lanes and merges so that traffic would likely go down Canyon Road to Central, Rose Street or Canyon and head out of town that way,” he said, adding that the contractor understands the concerns of the community and has been doing everything they can to help the situation.

Asked by Councilor Denise Derkacs if changing Trinity back to four lanes, regardless of time frame, would require state approval, Rael responded that the state has the ultimate call on that.

“In 2020 the state came through with a maintenance project and put new asphalt on top so they had to restripe it anyway so the discussion of the road diet was being floated around that time. So the state said, if Los Alamos wants a road diet then we want a resolution from the Council saying this is what we want. We can want all we want but until they approve that, we don’t have the jurisdiction over that road to make the changes even if we wanted do,” Rael said.

Derkacs said roadwork on two main roads in Los Alamos would be a nightmare.

“I think that is a non-starter. This is not the time to make any changes on Trinity,” she said.

Councilors listened to extensive background information from County Public Works Director Juan Rael on steps that have already been taken to improve the congestion situation, as well as steps that have been explored and solutions currently under discussion with TLC Plumbing & Utility, the construction contractor for the Canyon Road Project. The discussion lasted more than an hour.

“It’s something that I feel is manageable for what we get it could be money well spent. We would want that it has at least the first layer of asphalt put down. Ultimately they will have to come back and place the second asphalt layer at the end. They would have to complete the utility infrastructure and concrete work on that side, prepare the base and put down a layer of asphalt and then move their work to the other side of the road. The problem would be the amount of activity on one half of the road with all the people and the equipment that goes back and forth. It really makes for a very hard work zone. They are trying to work out if it is possible for those two crews to work safely side by side and both accomplish their tasks,” Rael said.

He said opening a lane on Canyon would mean the County would gain probably three weeks at best which would mean mid to late October.

“It does buy us a little time. It’s not going to be life-changing, it won’t change tomorrow and have everything go away but it’s the best of what they’re able to do if they’re able to do it,” Rael said.

Chair Ryti said when the restriping options for the road diet were discussed a couple of years ago he recalled that Council was told that if it wasn’t working and they wanted to change it back, they could do that.

“So that implied that there was much more certainty about restriping it to four lanes when we approved this. And also there was the intent to have a review period. I think we had COVID in the early part of that period so it wasn’t an appropriate time.

Under public comment, former Public Works Director, now Deputy County Manager Anne Laurent said she wanted to make a quick clarification because she thought she might have been part of the comments that striping on asphalt can be changed and wanted to give a little context around that conversation.

“It was in the context of if the asphalt width in the configuration was staying the same, that there weren’t other investments and capital investments in changing the infrastructure beyond the paint. It was also in the context of we would gather the data coming out and analyze it and based on that it was different than what was modeled and anticipated to happen that was used where the state believed that it was a good solution and they were willing to approve it as a good solution for the traffic flow. I just wanted a little context on that because it wasn’t intended to be any kind of flip comment. It really was intended to be – it is paint on asphalt in terms of factual in that the change and the cost into making those changes and the investment of removing the paint and of putting new striping,” Laurent said.

After Chair Ryti made the motion noted above, Councilor David Izraelevitz said he hadn’t heard any assurance or evidence or any discussion that actually two lanes both ways would solve any problem.

“What I understand from what little I know about transportation engineering is that it’s actually the traffic lights and intersections – that if you think about the Main Hill Road is one lane and that is the bounding capacity so I guess I would like to hear what evidence there is to make the change. There were some very elaborate studies done and elaborate studies done about the roundabout. That seems to be working well,” he said.

Ryti said he thinks it is the empirical evidence and obviously there are other issues on the road such as the short distance between Canyon and Trinity and Diamond and Trinity. He referred to the merging distance by the Los Alamos Medical Center where there’s a constant stream of vehicles attempting to turn from Diamond onto Trinity that are slowed down.

“That’s where Mr. Rael was indicating that maybe we could do something else with the lights and maybe it would help the situation. I think I would be amenable if the problem goes away and it’s going to take two or three weeks to get this implemented – if the problem’s gone away in two or three weeks that would be fine where we’re not going to need to do this right away,” Ryti said. “But I think we should be looking at whether or not the four-lane is actually functioning as we’re thinking, and we have the issue that we didn’t consider this impact when we were funding the Canyon Road Project.”

He said if the road diet area is temporarily restriped or if barrels are place, the Council will get the data and find out if the road diet is actually functioning, whether drivers are waiting 2-3 minutes instead of 10-15 minutes or if the waiting time is the same. He said some of the ideas mentioned by Rael had come from him such as the placement of barrels but that DOT would not allow them.

“It’s not a perfect situation but it would offer us an opportunity to collect information and find out what’s actually happening. We can’t restripe it right now because we can’t close two roads,” Ryti said.

Councilor Izraelevitz said he would like to hear from the traffic engineers as to what the expectation is because he appreciates that it is a narrow merge.

“We are working on that. Finch Street is going to change that. We’ve also heard evidence that the barrels are going to slow everybody down and it’s an engineering discipline like any other – that there’s modeling, rules of thumb and design criteria and the safety issue. People can get killed if you don’t do it right,” he said.

Deputy Public Works Director Eric Martinez said when the initial studies of the road diet were performed back in 2019 it was because of a traffic study for The Hill Apartments. He said the idea of a road diet came through a recommendation to the Transportation Board.  During that time the idea was studied and reviewed pretty thoroughly by the County’s consulting engineer, County staff and DOT.

“We looked at a 10-year horizon that showed that given a projected level of traffic increases that the road diet would operate sufficiently. We’ve always known that the signalized intersections to the corridor really drive the capacity of the roadways….. The road diet section itself does have a certain threshold of capacity. When we did the initial study, we looked at federal highway administration guidelines and DOT guidelines and there are actually different cities around the nation that have their own guidelines with different thresholds that they would tolerate with a road diet,” Martinez said, adding that the County used a national guideline.

He said the road diet is a viable option given the study parameters within the corridor.

“When we looked at this corridor, the adjacent land use was one of the items we looked at. It is largely residential with office space. The adjacent driveways were such that they provided good spacing and good management of access. That was one of the pros as far as implementing the road diet. As far as the traffic thresholds, Canyon Road sees about 60 percent of the traffic that Trinity Drive does so that’s a pretty significant amount. We have roughly from 12,000 to 15,000 vehicles a day on Trinity and on Canyon we can have as many as 11,000. That’s pretty significant, so when you’re closing down Canyon Road and putting all that traffic into Trinity that’s a pretty significant bump in traffic,” Martinez said. “That being said, with recent counts that we’ve taken, with the amount of traffic that we have on there, it is right at the capacity of the road diet given the guidelines that we have at our disposal.”

He went on to say that although the road diet section is at capacity, it’s functioning and that there’s a cause and effect – the closing of Canyon Road. He said Public Works has been working with the signal timing to maximum green time to allow the traffic from Diamond and Trinity and Diamond and Canyon to move through and get to Trinity.

“As long as we’re maximizing signal time for the peak hour traffic, which we are, that helps with relieving some of that pressure,” Martinez said.

Councilor Sara Scott said she did not support the motion.

“First of all I think that in the interim the option outlined previously is the one that will make the most difference, the quickest. The other point is that I’m not comfortable going forward with a proposal that’s not based on the data we all know we asked for, specifically the performance data regarding how the road diet is working. I would like that before I propose spending time and energy on what we think might be a solution, when we don’t even know the impact that the road diet has had. The reason that it was put forward was for safety reasons. We all know there were a lot of accidents, concerns about bicyclists and pedestrians so I don’t know why we would change that absent any information on how well that is or isn’t working,” Scott said.

Councilor Derkacs said she thinks it’s premature to make a decision on converting three lanes to four lanes while the community is in the middle of road construction.

“I think that we should request a traffic study after construction on Canyon is done and the traffic on Trinity has returned to somewhat of a normal state. I think we would have more accurate information to work from,” she said.

Councilors did not share the nature of contact they had with the public on the road diet issue. Only one member of the public spoke during public comment.