For the past seven years, Lisa Corcoran has done her best to keep Juneau’s drivers safe.
Corcoran is a driving instructor at SERRC, one of two state-approved driving schools in Juneau. Since 2009, she’s guided more than 480 people through classes intended to keep them — and their fellow drivers — safe on the road. Her youngest students are teenagers. The oldest was a 64-year-old.
“Our whole goal is to teach kids great defensive driving skills and to understand what distance, time and space means (when driving),” she said by phone.
When it comes to teaching those skills, there’s no better tool than practice. After classroom lessons and videos, she takes them onto the road.
Eventually, each student will inevitably take Egan Drive to Fred Meyer.
“I tell them that is the most dangerous intersection in Juneau,” she said. “I do a lot of scenarios with that particular intersection.”
Corcoran’s caution is warranted.
On Dec. 2, four cars were involved in a crash there that sent six people to the hospital. On Dec. 14, another crash at the same intersection involved two pickup trucks. A third crash took place Dec. 19.
The accidents, which took place in the evening rush hour, drew an onslaught of attention to what Corcoran already knew: It’s a dangerous place to drive.
On a popular local Facebook page, incoming Juneau Rep. Justin Parish asked a simple question: “What should we do about the Fred Meyer intersection?”
He received more than 250 responses, and his question spawned other comment threads that garnered dozens more.
“We’ve had accidents there, and when our neighbors get hurt or vital lines of transportation are interfered with, people ought to have opinions — and well, they do,” Parish said by phone.
“Do I think that it’s dangerous? Yes,” Corcoran said. “It will never get better until they decide to change it.”
Is it the most dangerous in Juneau?
According to statistics kept by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, the Fred Meyer intersection (formally known as Egan and Yandukin) was the site of 31 crashes between Jan. 1, 2009 and Dec. 31, 2013.
Other intersections had more crashes. No. 1 on the list was the intersection of Mendenhall Loop Road and Egan Drive, which had 55 crashes in the same five-year period.
“Just for general purposes, when people say it’s dangerous, it’s not our most dangerous intersection,” Woodrow said.
The Fred Meyer intersection didn’t even make the top five. It’s No. 8 on DOT’s list.
Data from the Juneau Police Department backs up DOT’s data. Lt. David Campbell, a spokesman for the department, said police information isn’t as precise as DOT’s because the Fred Meyer intersection can be listed several different ways in the police records, but police recorded 17 accidents in 2014, 21 in 2015 and 10 in 2016.
At the “McNugget” intersection of Egan Drive and Glacier Highway, JPD recorded 18 accidents in 2014, 17 in 2015 and 20 in 2016.
If the Fred Meyer intersection doesn’t have as many car crashes as others in Juneau, why is it perceived as more dangerous?
Campbell has an idea.
“I think the reason why Fred Meyer is on everybody’s radar is the nature of the accidents that are occurring there,” he said.
At McNugget or other intersections with traffic signals, cars tend to be moving more slowly. The most common accident is probably a fender-bender.
At the Fred Meyer intersection, which has no signal, “the car that’s doing the impacting is probably going 55 mph,” Campbell said.
That speed creates severe accidents, frequently involving injuries.
According to records kept by Capital City Fire/Rescue, Juneau’s fire and ambulance service responded to the Fred Meyer intersection 12 times in 2016 and transported seven people to the hospital.
What’s more, the number of ambulance responses has been rising. In 2013, CCFR responded five times, twice taking crash victims to the hospital. That figure has risen each year since.
‘There wasn’t time to do anything’
One of the people behind those fire-department statistics is Jacqueline Tupou.
On a summer afternoon this year, Tupou was driving on Egan Drive to a luau in the Mendenhall Valley. Her son was in the front seat behind her. In the back seat were three other children.
“It was a Saturday afternoon coming from Costco, and there was traffic all around us,” she said by phone.
It was a nice day, and the road was thick with traffic — cars behind, merging onto Egan Drive, and in the turn lane.
Ahead, Tupou noticed a car nosing into the highway ahead of her, apparently preparing to dash across the Valley-bound lanes and into the Fred Meyer access road.
“I just kept thinking, she’s going to stop any minute,” Tupou remembered.
The car didn’t stop.
“By the time I realized she wasn’t going to stop, there wasn’t time to do anything,” Tupou said.
In the final seconds before the crash, Tupou steered to the right. It wasn’t enough to avoid a crash, but it was enough that the impact fell on the driver’s side of the front end.
Tupou’s vehicle was traveling at almost 55 mph, and the force of the crash sent it spinning with enough force that it struck the other vehicle twice. Tupou’s vehicle ended up on the concrete island at the mouth of the Fred Meyer access road.
“Everyone’s just sort of quiet, and then it wasn’t quiet, and it was crying and screaming,” she remembered.
Tupou was pinned in the vehicle for a time, but the children were pulled out of the smoking car by bystanders.
“I was just in a ridiculous amount of pain,” she said.
Tupou suffered extensive bruising and hematomae; the driver of the other car suffered multiple broken bones and lacerated organs. Some of the children in Tupou’s car endured concussions and other injuries.
“It’s like six months later, but it’s still … hurting,” Tupou said on Friday.
She said it’s easy for people who haven’t been through a crash to simply blame it on the driver, to say they were acting stupidly or made a mistake.
“It’s not just driver error,” Tupou said. “You could be the person who’s driving and minding your own business, and in the next moment, your life’s changed.”
Past report predicted current problem
The Department of Transportation has known of the problems at the Fred Meyer intersection for years. In January 2002, it commissioned a project known as the West Egan Drive Corridor Study. The study was intended to look at traffic along Egan Drive between Sunny Point and Industrial Boulevard, then predict what might be needed to meet demand in 2025.
“Current congestion at some of the intersections is expected to worsen and expand to other intersections as traffic demand through the Mendenhall Valley continues to grow,” the report concluded in July 2003.
If no changes were made, the report said, there would be significant problems by 2015 at several intersections.
“In addition, motorists traveling … at unsignalized intersections such as those at Old Dairy Road/Trout Street and Berners Avenue will experience excessive delays during the evening peak hour,” the report said.
Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, was an engineer and not yet a legislator when he served on an advisory committee for the study.
“Some of the plans that we did were overly — or quite a bit — ambitious,” he said.
Among the plan’s recommendations were to turn almost every Egan Drive intersection into a grade-separated overpass. In the end, only one, at Sunny Point, was built.
The report also recommended Lemon Spur Road, which runs behind Fred Meyer, be extended to the McNugget intersection to provide another entrance to the Fred Meyer area.
The report estimated that project would cost $12.5 million to build. Installing an overpass at the front entrance of Fred Meyer would cost another $16 million, the report speculated.
Engineering a solution
Jeremy Woodrow is the spokesman for the Department of Transportation. When asked why DOT never implemented the changes suggested by its own report, he had a ready answer.
“It looks great on the surface, but when you think about the pot of money we have available,” it might not be affordable, he said.
DOT has made some changes suggested by the West Egan study. A new Brotherhood Bridge has been built, and access to Industrial Boulevard has been improved. New traffic signals have been installed at Riverside Drive and Mendenhall Loop.
In 2012, DOT redesigned and rebuilt the Fred Meyer turn lanes to improve the sight distance for drivers.
These changes improved safety, but they didn’t wholly solve the problem.
In the first months of 2017, DOT will issue a $250,000 contract for an engineering firm to suggest fixes for the Fred Meyer intersection. Only about $22,000 of that contract will be paid by the state; the rest will come from the federal government.
After the contractor turns in a report, DOT engineers will design a new intersection. They’ll then have to find the money to build it.
“I would say it’s several years out,” Woodrow said. “It’s not going to happen next summer or the summer after.”
If a fix could take five years, or even a decade, why not try an interim solution like banning left turns at that intersection or testing some other approach that could be done quickly and cheaply?
“We really don’t like to experiment with people’s lives,” Woodrow said.
Connecting Lemon Spur to the McNugget intersection would require driving a road through wetlands, something that could require an extensive environmental assessment process.
What about simply training people to be better drivers?
“Boy, I wish it was that easy,” instructor Corcoran said. “People are human, and people make mistakes, and that’s why we have accidents.”
Engineering a solution to the Fred Meyer intersection will not be cheap, and it will not be quick, but will it be worth it?
“How much money compares to a life, or somebody getting hurt really bad?” Corcoran asked. “I don’t know.”
Juneau’s most dangerous traffic intersections
1. Egan Drive and Mendenhall Loop Road (55 crashes)
2. Egan Drive and Glacier Highway (McNugget)
3. Egan Drive and Glacier Highway (Salmon Creek)
4. Egan Drive and West 10th Street (Juneau-Douglas Bridge)
5. Mendenhall Loop Road and Stephen Richards Memorial Drive
6. Mendenhall Loop Road and Mendenhall Mall Road
7. Egan Drive and Vanderbilt Hill Road
8. Egan Drive and Yandukin Drive (31 crashes)
Information courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, 2009-2013.
According to a 2014 study, the latest available from the Alaska Department of Transportation, 28,369 cars drive through the Fred Meyer intersection on any average day. It’s not just the busiest section of road in Juneau; it’s the busiest section of road in all of the Southcoast Region, which covers Southeast, Kodiak and the Aleutians.
Old Dairy Road, next to Fred Meyer, carries an average of 8,900 cars per day, making it among the busiest in Juneau. In comparison, the Juneau-Douglas Bridge carries about half as much traffic on any given day.