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A six-vehicle crash caused a pileup and injured several people Friday night in Grand Forks.Grand Forks Police responded at 6:11 p.m. to the 1400 block of 32nd Avenue South to a report of a crash, according to a news release. Herald File photo

Safety upgrades two years out for Grand Forks' crash corridor

Many Grand Forks commuters end up on 32nd Avenue South each week.

Most of the city's shopping and almost all of its big box stores are wedged along the road between Washington Street and Interstate 29, so it's no surprise the area is one of the city's most common for car crashes. In June, Grand Forks police were dispatched to at least 25 accidents along the stretch.

"That's definitely an area where have noticed a high number of crashes," said Grand Forks Police patrol bureau commander Lt. Bill Macki.

City planners and first responders have long eyed the area for improvements, but because the road technically is the business loop of North Dakota Highway 81, local officials have been awaiting federal funding appropriations for a two-phase project to boost safety on the avenue.

That funding, about $7.5 million to complete both phases, finally was earmarked by state officials this year, according to Grand Forks civil engineer principal David Kuharenko. The project is expected to be funded in 2019, based on NDDOT budget drafts, but that can be subject to change.

A treacherous stretch

Each year, the North Dakota Department of Transportation identifies the 50 most dangerous intersections in urban and rural stretches of North Dakota. Grand Forks' 32nd Avenue South corridor had three intersections on the list in 2016: 32nd Avenue South and South 34th Street ranked 13th; the intersection at South 31st Street ranked 39th; and the intersection at South Columbia Road came in at 47th. (The intersection of DeMers Avenue and Washington Street was ranked 14th in 2016, and was 2nd in both 2015 and 2014).

In years past, the intersection of 32nd and South 20th Street has cracked list; it ranked 13th in 2014 and 17th in 2014.

Macki said police encourage people to take their time when turning left onto 32nd, and to be sure they can make the turn before stepping on the gas.

"This has been something that has been on the Department of Transportation's radar, and they know we've been working with NDDOT to improve the stretch for a long time," Kuharenko said.

The city has applied for North Dakota's Highway Safety Improvement Program funding to improve the area multiple times in recent years. The program allocates federal funding for state projects, but only distributes about $12 million each year in the state and getting the funds is competitive.

Safety plans

City, state and federal officials have discussed plans to improve the stretch, Kuharenko said, and have a firm vision for increased safety that will realign several left turn lanes along the stretch.

Phase One of the plan calls for realigning the left turn lanes at the intersections with 34th Street South, 31st Street South and Columbia Road.

"This would make it so that instead of being negatively offset, they would be head to head, so you can see around the vehicle in opposing traffic," Kurharenko told the City Council in November.

When cars are negatively offset at an intersection, the driver is lined up to the right of oncoming vehicles, which can make it hard to see around the cars, Kurharenko said. A head to head intersection allows drivers to see around the cars in their area to make safer turns.

Both left turn lanes on Columbia Road onto 32nd would be expanded to double turn lanes in hopes of keeping traffic from piling up and decreasing rear-end accidents in the area.

Phase One is projected to cost $4.5 million; the city will have to put in $221,350 to receive the state's allocation from the federal HSIP fund.

Phase Two, projected to cost $2.95 million with a $147,250 city match, will add flashing yellow lights to left turn lanes throughout the corridor, including at the I-29 ramps, and will realign the in the left turn lanes at 38th Street South and 20th to make both head-to-head intersections.

"This project is going to address pretty much every intersection in the corridor," Kuharenko said.