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Jane Williams, Grand Forks city traffic engineer, views a sophisticated system of motion sensors at almost all the intersections in Grand Forks that track when a vehicle enters an intersection and takes count of vehicles 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Driving change: New growth brings more traffic

As development in Grand Forks heads south, changes in traffic flow follow.

Traffic counts, which are taken every two to three years, show there has been a shift in traffic volume towards the south end of the city and development continues to move that direction.

"Anytime you have growth in an area you're going to see increased traffic. That's a normal situation. Any place you see construction going on, you're going to have increased traffic," said Jane Williams, a traffic engineer since 1973, who has been with the City of Grand Forks for 10 years.

Among the south-end corridors, 40th Avenue South is one of the streets that has seen the most significant traffic growth, from both commercial and residential development.

From 2013 to 2015, the annual average daily traffic—or AADT for traffic engineers—the intersection of 40th Avenue South and Columbia Road jumped by an average of more than 450 cars per day—from 6,269 to 6,726.

On the same road to the east, traffic at the four-way stop of 40th Avenue and South 20th Street increased from 6,022 to 6,559 cars per day. Smaller streets on the south end have also seen increased traffic, with Adams Drive, east of Belmont Road increasing from 665 to 998 AADT from 2013 to 2015 and Monarch Lane, on the southern edge of town at the city limits, increasing from 784 to 1,151 during the same time frame.

To get these numbers, the city uses a system of motion sensors at intersections in Grand Forks that track when a vehicle enters an intersection and takes count of vehicles 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This data is then added, Williams said, divided by 365 and normalized to yield the average annual daily traffic.

However, just because the south end has seen an increase in traffic, doesn't mean it sees the most traffic.

The busiest roadways in Grand Forks are still Gateway Drive, Washington Street, 32nd Avenue south and DeMers Avenue. The busiest intersection in Grand Forks remains the intersection of DeMers and Washington, which sees an AADT of 50,675. Coming in second is the intersection of 32nd Avenue South and Washington Street, with an AADT of about 38,785.

Driving drivers

Williams says there are unlimited factors that affect day-to-day traffic patterns.

Major intersections such as Washington and DeMers and Washington and 32nd Avenue South see consistently high traffic for a few reasons. All three roads feed major highways. They also offer options to avoid railroad crossings, with an overpass for DeMers and and an underpass for Washington, and are among the few major roads through town that are open to semi truck traffic.

For smaller streets, factors in people's daily lives, such as taking a different route to work because of construction or going to the dentist, are variations in trips that can skew traffic patterns and counts. With 50,536 motorists in Grand Forks County and an average of 10 trips a day per household, variations in traffic patterns can be endless.

While a lot what Williams does involves studying traffic patterns, all of her work revolves around a goal.

"Everything we do is based in safety," said Williams. And not just for motorists. As a traffic engineer, Williams takes into account pedestrians and bicyclists as well.

"We want people to be able to use the system and use it safely. Our idea is to move them as efficiently and effectively as we can."

Williams said that aspect of the job is what makes it so rewarding.

"I've been in public service since 1973. I get a lot of satisfaction over making things smoother, making things better. I've done it all my life," she said.

Downtown is one place where traffic will soon flow smoother with a project to add left turn signals for eastbound and westbound traffic at the downtown intersections of DeMers with Third, Fourth and Fifth Streets.

The new traffic signals will be installed by the end of the summer.