By Dean A. Radford
Rainier Avenue through the heart of Renton is a work in progress.
It’s the city’s transportation workhorse, handling about 50,000 vehicle trips a day. That rivals the traffic load of such major commercial thoroughfares as Aurora Avenue in north Seattle.
And Rainier, a state highway, can easily get congested, especially at its intersection with Grady Way. Congestion on Rainier, acting like fast-flowing river, in turn forces backups on smaller city streets that flow into it.
To do something about the Rainier corridor through downtown is a top transportation priority for the city of Renton.
Even the construction the state is doing on Interstate 405, including the new onramp and offramp for Talbot Road, is partly intended to divert traffic away from Rainier, which is the continuation of State Route 167 – the Valley Freeway – until it reaches South Second Street.
A major step was taken in 2007 when Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway removed three railroad bridges through downtown and replaced them with wider ones, including one over Rainier Avenue, in financial cooperation with the city.
The wider bridge at Rainier was critical to making the highway a tree-lined thoroughfare that has safer and easier access to local businesses and allows transit buses to move quickly through the corridor. The bridge constricted traffic’s flow and was a bit unnerving.
Pedestrians will find a much friendlier atmosphere to traverse, with trees and wider sidewalks.
Now comes the rest of the roughly $40 million city transportation project, the largest in Renton’s history. That about doubles the money needed to improve the streets around a new development in north Renton, The Landing.
About 30 percent of the project is designed, according to Bob Hanson, the city’s transportation design supervisor. The project runs from South Grady Way to South Second Street.
At the same time, the city is talking with the owners of 57 properties on both sides of the Rainier corridor about purchasing the land – the right of way – necessary to expand the corridor, which will include new sidewalks and a dedicated lane in each direction for business access.
It’s possible a business might have to relocate to make way for the project. Nothing is certain, Hanson said, because new options often arise during the negotiations.
The city was expecting to make offers to buy the rights of way – at market value – late this month, he said.
The construction cost alone of the Rainier improvements is estimated at just over $15 million, according to Hanson, which doesn’t including replacing the railroad bridge over Rainier.
It’s too early to pin down the total cost of the project, in part because the agreements to purchase the right of way haven’t been finalized. The project’s design is continuing and the city is planning additional meetings soon with the public and local businesses to get community input, Hanson said.
But preliminary estimates for all improvements to Rainier, including the removal of the bridges, is the roughly $40 million. The money is coming from the city of Renton, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, the state, the federal government and Sound Transit.
Sound Transit is providing $14.9 million because the two lanes being added in both directions in the project corridor are BAT lanes, or business access and transit lanes
Like it does with other construction projects, the city will take into consideration public comments about the Rainier project design and then construction, Hanson said.
“It’s a give and take sort of thing,” Hanson said. The city is not “just going to tell them what will happen,” he said.
What’s important to the city, Hansen said, is to maintain access to the many businesses along Rainier so their customers can get to them. There are few, if any environmental issues because the highway already exists and those issues have already been addressed.
“I would say the more critical issues in this are constructability and staging so that it has the least impact on the businesses,” said Hanson.
The general motoring public, including the big trucks that use Rainier to move goods to Renton Center and elsewhere in Renton, will have far safer access to businesses. Gone will be the uncontrolled left turns into driveways and parking lots that set up the potential for head-on collisions. Instead, drivers will use U-turns at intersections to return to the intended destination, making right-hand turns.
“That is far safer,” said Hanson.
Rainier Avenue will remain open during construction, which is expected to begin in late 2010 or early 2011. Some nighttime and weekend road closures could occur.
Construction should take about 18 months.
Dean A. Radford is editor of the Renton Reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Dean A. Radford