Roundabouts improve safety, but plan divides Springfield drivers

Decision on building roundabout in Springfield likely to come this week.

Roundabouts significantly improve safety and reduce congestion, transportation experts say, but that might not be enough to convince local drivers and city leaders that one should be installed at a busy Springfield intersection.

Opponents of a proposed $679,000 traffic circle at Bechtle Avenue and St. Paris Pike Connector believe it will confuse drivers and cause crashes.

Residents have spoken out against the proposed roundabout at several city commission meetings over the past few months.

Springfield leaders believes the roundabout will reduce crashes by 71 percent and fatalities by 87 percent, while also reducing congestion and improving air quality — all of which experts say is true.

“They’re becoming more acceptable as people get to know them,” said Deogratias Eustace, and associate professor and director of the Transportation Engineering Laboratory at the University of Dayton.

But city commissioners told the Springfield News-Sun that many residents don’t want it and some said they’re leaning toward voting against it.

The Springfield City Commission is expected to decide on the proposal at its meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the City Hall Forum, 76 E. High St.

“To me, there’s not a whole lot of discussion left,” said Scott Schmid, director of the Clark County-Springfield Transportation Coordinating Committee . “We’ve done everything we can numbers-wise, it’s just a matter of opinion.”

True roundabout

The project would be the first true roundabout in Springfield. During a three-year period, there have been seven crashes — including one fatality and one injury — at the Bechtle Avenue intersection.

Last year, three accidents occurred at the connector, according to Springfield Police Division traffic statistics.

Another injury accident happened last week, sending one person to the people to the hospital.

The city and TCC first applied for state funding for the Bechtle roundabout in 2011, but it was rejected because of a lack of crashes at the intersection. A stop sign was placed there until a temporary traffic signal was installed in 2011 to reduce congestion.

The Ohio Department of Transportation approved the project last year and it will be paid for through federal funds because it will reduce congestion, delays and the risk of crashes, according to officials. The project is at no cost to the city. The money can be used for other eligible projects, but not for paving neighborhood streets.

If rejected by city commissioners, the developer of the shopping center north of Walmart will have to pay to install a permanent traffic signal. He’s already posted a $100,000 bond for the signal.

Safer, more efficient

Roundabouts greatly improve safety compared to other intersections, experts say.

Traffic circles force drivers to reduce their speed while continuing to move through the intersection, Eustace said.

“You can’t travel a roundabout at 50 or 60 miles per hour,” Eustace said. “You’re going to slow down, but not stop. Slowing down helps the driver be more cautious and see what they’re doing. If vehicles hit each other at low speeds, the chances of causing major injuries are lower.”

The slower speeds lead to a 90-percent reduction in fatalities, 76-percent reduction in injuries and 35-percent reduction in all crashes, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Roundabouts also reduce congestion, pollution and save money for maintenance of signal equipment, the agency says.

Roundabouts also reduce the most dangerous types of conflicts for drivers such as T-bone and head-on collisions, Eustace said.

“The most likely accident (at a roundabout) will be a side swipe or rear end,” he said.

The key for cities proposing roundabouts is to educate the public about how to navigate them, Eustace said, especially since it’s a topic not typically taught during driver’s education.

“People are scared of roundabouts, not just in Springfield, but everywhere, until they learn how to use them,” he said.

The Ohio Department of Transportation doesn’t keep an inventory of roundabouts throughout the state, Matt Bruning said, and many of them are located in cities where ODOT has no jurisdiction.

The state typically recommends roundabouts to improve safety and congestion, Bruning said, but there’s no “hard-and-fast” rule.

“They’re designed for lower speeds, so they’re incredibly effective at intersections with a long history of fatalities or serious injury crashes,” he said. “You also don’t have a stoplight or stop sign to worry about.”

Each intersection is analyzed separately, Bruning said. All options are on the table — including roundabouts and traffic signals — before an option is selected.

“Obviously, there are going to be situations where roundabouts work and situations where they don’t work,” he said. “We have to evaluate each intersection on a case-by-case basis and if it makes sense to put one in, then it’s certainly something we’re not afraid to look at.”

Indiana’s roundabout leader

Carmel, Ind., an Indianapolis suburb, currently has 93 roundabouts and could have 100 before the end of the year.

Safety and reduced congestion is the major reason for building traffic circles rather than stop lights, Carmel Engineer Jeremy Kashman said. The city has used roundabouts for about 20 years.

“The feedback we hear from people is that they love roundabouts,” Kashman said. “Every once in a while you’ll hear some complaints. Over that time frame, we’ve been on the leading edge of design and we’ve had to make some changes to them. For the most part now, everything works pretty well.”

The roundabouts have reduced injury accidents by 80 percent and an overall reduction in crashes of 40 percent, Kashman said.

Carmel has a dedicated website to educate drivers on the roundabouts. He’s seen other communities, like Speedway, Ind., set up a mock traffic circle to allow people to navigate the intersection on bicycles.

With very few traffic signals, Carmel saves significant money on both maintenance and workforce, Kashman said. It also eliminates shutting down roadways during maintenance.

In 2014, a portion of U.S. 31 in Carmel was shut down for construction, routing traffic to another area with a roundabout. Despite a 40 percent increase in traffic, there were no delays due to the construction, Kashman said.

“They have the ability to handle traffic and keep people safe,” he said.

First in Ohio

The city of Dublin, a suburb of Columbus, is constructing its 21st roundabout this year with more planned in the future, City Manager Dana McDaniel said.

The first roundabout in Ohio opened in Dublin in 2004 at the intersection of Brand and Muirfield roads as a result of a fatal crash. The city produced a video to show residents and visitors how to drive them.

“There was a lot of angst about them at first because people just weren’t sure about them,” McDaniel said. “There was some sarcasm after the first few went in but we don’t hear that so much anymore. I hear more people praise them than talking against them.”

While roundabouts can be cost effective when it comes to long-term maintenance, he said the top priority is public safety.

“Irregardless of cost, the ability to have a safer, more efficient intersection is really the primary focus,” McDaniel said.

Once residents begin navigating roundabouts, it becomes much easier, he said.

“Every intersection will have some level of crashes to it,” McDaniel said, “But overall they decrease the number of crashes and severity of crashes.”

Local roundabouts

Clark and Champaign counties have two traffic circles, including a fairly new one at Ohio 41 and Ohio 235.

After a 14-year period, the Pike Twp. intersection saw 43 crashes, including 20 injury crashes and three fatalities.

Between October 2014 when the roundabout opened and October 2015, two crashes have occurred, both of them cars striking a nearby light pole, TCC Director Scott Schmid said. Some trucks have also not used all of the pavement like they should, he said.

“So far, so good,” Schmid said. “We don’t have a lot of long-term stats, obviously, but just the first year it’s open. … So far it’s been working pretty well.”

The roundabout at the center of Urbana was installed in 2009. Seven years later, the city is spending $30,000 on a traffic study to improve safety for pedestrians and reduce the speed of vehicles there. The study is expected to be released later this month.

At least one pedestrian has been hit in a crosswalk at the roundabout, Urbana Mayor Bill Bean told the News-Sun last month. The city will consider cutting down traffic inside the circle to one lane and creating islands to slow down drivers.

The TCC is supportive of the project at Bechtle Avenue, Schmid said. The majority of the cost comes from the fact that it’s a retro-fit project and not part of a new roadway, he said.

“With all the data analysis we’ve done, it’s still a good project,” Schmid said. “It’s just up against opinion at this point.”

Will of the people

More than 1,200 residents signed petitions objecting to the project. Springfield resident Norma Jones told the Springfield News-Sun she’s disappointed she didn’t get to sign the petition. Traveling through the stoplight at the intersection has never been a problem, she said.

“I just don’t think it’s necessary and I’m sure a lot of people feel that way, too,” she said. “I know its state money, but maybe there could be a better use for it someplace else.”

Mayor Warren Copeland is waiting to have all the information in front of him before he makes a decision, he said. Many residents who have spoken to him don’t support the project.

“The question is whether we think it’s important enough to go against the will of the people or whether we agree to the will of the people that now’s not the time,” Copeland said. “I think (City Manager) Jim Bodenmiller is trying to figure that out and make a recommendation to us.”

City Commissioner Joyce Chilton has gone door-to-door in the nearby neighborhood on St. Paris Pike and East Home Road and the majority of residents there told her they oppose the project. However Chilton wants more information before making a decision.

“We’re still talking to the people and getting a feel for it,” Chilton said.

Commissioner Kevin O’Neill has been critical of the project since the beginning, voting against a $187,000 engineering contract to begin design work and a feasibility study last year.

Commissioner Dan Martin said he’s leaning toward voting against the project after the public outcry in recent weeks.

While Commissioner Karen Duncan has overcome her fear of roundabouts after driving to see family in Indiana, she doesn’t believe now is the time to move forward with the roundabout. Duncan has received more e-mail from opponents of this issue than any other topic during her years on the commission.

“When you have community opposition as strongly as this is, then I’m not going to support it,” Duncan said.

She believes more roundabouts will be proposed in the future, but has concerns about what might happen if the city were to reject federal dollars for this project.

“My biggest fear is that it may put us at a disadvantage,” Duncan said. “We’ve never really turned down funding like this in the past and I hope it doesn’t impact our ability to acquire grant dollars in the future.”

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