ASHLAND – After the temporary traffic signals at the intersection of Highways 6 and 66 in Ashland came down last week, public outcry has been loud.
The signals have been replaced with stop signs where Highway 66 intersects with Highway 6, the same form of traffic regulation that was there before the temporary lights were installed a little over five months ago.
An online petition was started soon after the lights were taken down last Thursday. Keni Jane Danner started a petition at www.change.org asking the state to install a permanent traffic light there now because the intersection is dangerous.
“The stop signs currently located on Highway 66 where it meets Highway 6 traveling north and south have already proven to be insufficient at preventing accidents,” Danner wrote on the petition.
Several residents have also shared the NDOT’s “contact us” portion of their website on Facebook to encourage people to send emails, according to the Ashland-Greenwood Community board on Facebook.
Mayor Rick Grauerholz said many Ashland citizens have contacted him as well.
“I have had sufficient phone calls and emails and texts,” he said last Thursday.
Thomas Goodbarn, NDOT’s District 1 engineer, said he has heard from many Ashland citizens and organizations asking for the lights to remain.
“You’ve got a really good community, and they have the right concerns,” he said. “I can appreciate what everybody wants.”
At the same time, however, Goodbarn said the NDOT has received an equal numbers of emails and calls from people who were unhappy about the signals.
“We had as many complaints for it being there by users of Highway 6,” he said.
Goodbarn said he understands that local residents want comfortable access to Highway 6 from Ashland. The overlay project on Highway 6 last spring restriped the intersection to help traffic flow to increase visibility so drivers can make better judgments, he added.
“We want to see how this new striping serves us,” he said.
Last week, Goodbarn had crews focus on adjusting the location of speed limit and “reduced speed ahead” signs on Highway 6 to also help. For example, one of the speed limit signs was reset about five feet from the edge of the pavement.
“You can’t miss it now because I stuck it on the end of the road,” he added.
City officials knew all along the traffic signals were only there for a limited time.
“We were told that up front they would be temporary,” said Grauerholz.
The lights were put up in March after floods closed three main roads to Omaha, causing extra traffic on Highway 6 through Ashland, according to Goodbarn.
“They were only there to handle overflow traffic,” he said.
Goodbarn said they left the signals in place even after Dodge Street and Q Street were repaired, but once the third main route to Omaha was opened last week, the lights came down.
“We left them in place until we got Highway 92 open,” he said.
In order to install permanent traffic signals, the intersection must meet national guidelines, Goodbarn said.
“We follow national standards and when one’s warranted, then we’ll work on getting one installed,” he said.
Those guidelines include a sufficient amount of traffic. Goodbarn said Highways 6/66 did not meet national standards when the most recent traffic study was done in 2018.
The NDOT’s website shows the Average Annual Daily Traffic count on Highway 6 was 5,290 last year. Highway 66’s count was 4,520.
Goodbarn said the state will do another traffic study after school starts, which is Wednesday, Aug. 14.
The traffic study counts movements at the intersection. Accidents are also a part of determining whether the area warrants a traffic signal, Goodbarn said.
City Administrator Jessica Quady said there were five accidents at the intersection reported to the Ashland Police Department in the past three years. There was one accident in 2019, which occurred after the flood but before the temporary lights were installed. There was also one in 2018 and three the year before. Statistics on fatalities at the intersection were not available before press time, but Quady said she did not recall any deaths at the intersection in several years.
Once an intersection meets the national warrants for a traffic signal, installation can be years away. Goodbarn said he has to work it into his budget, which can push the timeline out about two years.
“My budget is spoken for all the way through 2026,” he said.
However, communities can pay for part of the cost, which will make installation happen sooner, he said.
Such is the case in Waverly, where traffic signals will be installed on Highway 6 at Amberly Road this fall. The area recently met the standards for traffic count because of large businesses and a school in the area, Goodbarn said.
The NDOT had scheduled installation for 2021, Goodbarn said, but the Waverly City Council wanted it done this year. So they kicked in about $150,000.
Goodbarn said the state will pay for design and construction engineering.
“But the signal itself is paid for by the City of Waverly,” he said.
This is not an uncommon practice in the state.
“We have communities that do this,” Goodbarn said.
Former Ashland Mayor Ronna Wiig recently posted on Facebook that the intersection was “wired” for traffic lights about 10 years ago after the Whitetail Estates subdivision was first proposed.
Goodbarn said technology has changed in the past decade, making that wiring obsolete, if it does exist.
“I don’t think it’s wired for anything we would install today,” he said.
For an intersection like Ashland’s, the NDOT would use traffic signals that watch traffic from above, rather than below, according to Goodbarn.
“What we would put in there would be ‘smart’,” he said.
Goodbarn said he understands the desire to add a traffic signal to Highway 6/66 in Ashland, but reminds people that unnecessary stop lights are not a good thing.
“If we put one in that doesn’t meet the warrant, it can cause other incidents and you can have potential liability here,” he said. “If it caused an accident, we’d have to answer to that.”
Traffic count in the area could increase in the next few years as the Whitetail Estates development continues to grow. The first phase of the residential area, with 50 homes, got underway this year. When all phases are completed, there could be as many as 150 homes there.
Goodbarn said NDOT would work with the developers and the City of Ashland if changes need to be made.
“That’s something we’ll collaborate on,” he said.