Thornton Road Grade Separation Doesn’t Make Sense

My response to the Ferndale road improvement plan, as discussed on the Bellingham Herald’s Traffic Blog.

Okay, here’s some back of the napkin calculations, based on grossly conservative assumptions about the Thornton grade separation:

1. The maximum distance saved by this project is 1 mile per trip (1.8 miles from the easternmost intersection on Thornton before the railroad tracks to the southbound onramp via Malloy, Vista, Second and Portal vs estimated 0.76 miles via proposed overpass). This is, perhaps, a mild understatement of up to 1/20th of a mile, but this is back of the napkin calculation, so we round — I’ll give back way more than this 5% in the rest of the assumptions.

2. The average car to make that trip will get 20 mpg for the trip forever. See, there’s your 5% and more right there.

3. 10,000 drivers will drive that route twice a day every day, making 20,000 car-miles per day gained by the proposed route. That is more than the 2000 Census reported for the entire population of Ferndale, so I’m giving way more than the 5% here as well.

4. The price of gasoline will be $4/gal forever.

5. The cost of the project will be $16million, $1.38 million cheaper than the current estimate, and will incur no interest payments.

6. The project will cost exactly as much to maintain per car trip as the existing route.

20k car-miles/day with a 20 mpg average makes for 1000 gallons of gas per day saved by the proposed route, using my amazingly generous assumptions, for a daily savings of $4000 to the drivers of Ferndale. At that rate, it would take 4000 days to save enough gasoline to cover the expense of this project. Taking back a teeny bit of my generosity in assumptions, call it 11 years.

And, since my assumptions were so amazingly generous, the reality is it would take much longer than 11 years to pay for the cost of this project. Which remains a project which would not take any cars off of Main Street heading to the refineries (shift-change traffic will be the same), since Thornton still has a steep grade (such fun with snow on it) and passes by three schools and two churches, on its way to a two-lane county road that doesn’t smoothly connect to any of the roads that lead to the refineries.

Nor will it take any cars off of Main Street heading to the freeway — those folks already have a better route than that via Washington, Second and Portal through the (actually quite nifty) new round-about interchange at Exit 263 (only one guaranteed stop between the freeway and the intersection of Vista and Thornton — none if you go up Malloy until you get to Brown — and that goes away if the proposed round-about at Vista and Washington goes through). Taking Main to the freeway is for suckers already, and it won’t be any less attractive if this project goes forward.

If we take the current estimate as gold, with no interest, no cost over-runs or budget creep, and divide that by 10k people in Ferndale, that gives a cost/head of $1,738 for this project. For a family of four, that’s $6952. To save perhaps five minutes a day (2 miles at 25 mph — as if). I don’t see a lot of Ferndalians standing in line to pop that kind of money on the counter for those kinds of savings.

And has anybody asked BNSF how they feel about having a major construction project going on over their tracks?

This project doesn’t make any sense from a financial perspective, nor does it from a traffic perspective. Why are we still talking about it at all? It costs more than every other project you listed combined, all of which produce far more significant safety improvements than this would. Let’s take it off the agenda, once and for all, and focus on the other projects instead.

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