‘J-turn’ work draws criticism

Officials say intersection will be safer

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Traffic waits Friday to use one of the new J-turns at the La. 42/Airline Highway intersection in Prairieville. The design and other elements of the $1.4 million in intersection improvements have drawn some criticism from drivers, but Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development officials said work is still underway, including traffic light timing and new signs.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Traffic waits Friday to use one of the new J-turns at the La. 42/Airline Highway intersection in Prairieville. The design and other elements of the $1.4 million in intersection improvements have drawn some criticism from drivers, but Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development officials said work is still underway, including traffic light timing and new signs.

A $1.4 million state project using a highway design feature called the J-turn to move traffic through one of Ascension Parish’s busiest intersections more smoothly is hitting a few bumps along the road.

State highway officials said the contractor, Richard Price Contracting Co., is not expected to finish until late April or early May, but many of the changes to the La. 42/Airline Highway intersection are already operational. Some drivers and business owners said this past week said they are not happy with the upgrades so far.

The concerns include the timing of the traffic light, the inconvenience of having to use J-turns instead of a normal left turn and a lack of signage that has drivers incorrectly waiting at what is supposed to be a new free-flowing right-turn lane on La. 42 westbound, at Airline, they said.

“It’s jacked up,” Jarell Matthew, 22, a bank security guard, said Wednesday while pumping gas near the intersection.

J-turns are U-turns with traffic lights and lanes in the median to hold vehicles waiting to make turns. The road design was named that because it results in an upside-down “J” shape.

According to a 2009 U.S. Department of Transportation report, J-turns allow traffic to move through main arteries more efficiently by avoiding the need for traffic light cycles to reserve time for left-turn movements.

At La. 42 and Airline, J-turns have been built northbound and southbound of the intersection in lieu of some left turns through that intersection, including from La. 42 westbound to Airline southbound. Other improvements are also being built north of Swamp Road.

To go left, drivers must drive past the intersection, use the J-turn and go back through the intersection to their destination, Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development officials said.

Lauren Lee, DOTD spokeswoman, said J-turns are used throughout Louisiana and have improved safety and traffic flow.

“J-turns reduce the risk of crashes and specifically the risk of severe crashes, such as side-collisions or T-bone type accidents,” Lee said in an email. “The J-turn optimizes the capacity of our existing roadway and reduces wait time for left-turning traffic.”

The U.S. DOT report summarized the results of computer modeling comparing J-turn intersections with conventional ones. The modeling found J-turns can increase the number of vehicles moving through an intersection by up to 30 percent and reduce the time to get through an intersection by up to 40 percent.

By eliminating left turns, J-turns also reduce so-called “conflict points” in intersections and the potential for some of the most dangerous kinds of collisions, the report says.

The intersection at La. 42 and Airline Highway is a primary point for the traffic flow of northern Ascension, carrying commuters back and forth from Baton Rouge daily.

Traffic counts in 2010 put daily load on Airline just north of the intersection at nearly 41,600 vehicles per day and daily load on La. 42 near the intersection at nearly 22,800 vehicles per day, the DOTD website says.

A new residential development with a public school that promised added traffic to Airline near the intersection few years ago acted as a trigger — in addition to already existing issues — for DOTD to review the entire stretch of highway, parish officials said.

“So in their efforts to determine a comprehensive fix, we arrive at where we are today,” said Ben Laurie, Ascension Parish chief engineer.

But some drivers said the fix may be worse than the problems that already existed. One issue several drivers pointed out is how long the lights at J-turns are taking to move traffic out, causing backups in the lane designed to hold turning traffic.

At the J-turn north of La. 42, where there is a J-turn and a dedicated left turn lane onto to Swamp Road, impatient drivers are using the left turn lane to make U-turns and cutting off traffic in the J-turn lane, drivers said.

“There’s no directions. There’s no signage. There’s no explanation of what’s going on. It’s an accident waiting to happen,” Paige Borskey, 32, said in an interview Thursday.

Others pointed out that drivers headed westbound on La. 42 and wanting to turn left on Airline southbound are avoiding the J-turn intended for that purpose and using nearby Jefferson Highway. Jefferson, also known as La. 73, intersects Airline south of the La. 42 intersection.

Ascension Parish Councilman Chris Loar, who represents the area affected by the J-turns, said he got DOTD to put in a dedicated left-turn lane on La. 42 westbound onto Jefferson to account for that possibility. He said he has heard many of the same complaints and is withholding judgment until the project is finished.

“I understand it. I get it. I think it’s worse right now. There’s still a lot of barrels out, and people have not figured it all out yet,” Loar said. “Once it gets worked out, it is not going to be as bad as people think. I think that people that want to go to businesses will still do the U-turn.”

DOTD’s Lee said the current signal timing is not final and more signs are planned for the intersection.

“Signals will be retimed when construction is complete, resulting in improved traffic flow,” Lee said in the email.

She said the area also will be monitored for the need for more signs.