Roundabout information does not change opinions (5/14/09)

May 14, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

At a meeting designed to provide information about a roundabout proposed for Williston Village, many attendees did not appear swayed that the project was necessary — even after reviewing data that showed the benefits of a roundabout.

The majority of the nearly 100 residents attending the meeting at Williston Central School Monday night seemed opposed to building a roundabout at the intersection of U.S. 2, North Williston and Oak Hill roads. The state classifies the intersection as one of the top 50 accident-plagued junctions in the state. Currently, the intersection is a standard four-way stop, with a blinking red light on the eastbound section of U.S. 2.

Some residents did speak in support of a roundabout, arguing that traffic backups and safety issues need to be considered.

“I’m in favor of the roundabout,” said Rep. Jim McCullough, D-Williston. “It actually almost functions as a roundabout because people don’t really stop at the stop signs. They just kind of roll through.”

It was unclear if anyone’s viewpoints changed during Monday’s meeting, but it was a chance for all to get on the same page in terms of information, said Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig.

“At least we need to have the same information available to us,” Macaig said.

For much of the three-hour meeting, Mark Smith, a consultant with Resource Systems Group Inc., discussed data in regards to roundabout construction and safety.

Smith said he was not advocating for the roundabout’s construction, but rather explaining only the facts.

“Having said that, I have great confidence that a roundabout is a solid site design,” Smith said.

The town’s Selectboard, along with the Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization, hired Smith for a roundabout study. Providing the same information he gave the Selectboard earlier this year before its vote, Smith highlighted how roundabouts reduce accidents through fewer “conflict” zones. Vehicles are less likely to crash into each other in the roundabout’s circular design, Smith said.

Citing data from a 2007 national highway study, Smith said roundabouts reduced accidents at traditional intersections by 35 percent and injuries by 76 percent.

At the Williston Village intersection, accidents have occurred about four to five times a year since 2004, according to data Smith provided. Since the installation of the blinking light last September, five fender benders have been reported at the junction. Only one accident required the response of emergency personnel, who did not transport any patients to the hospital.

Reducing the speed of vehicles is another function of a roundabout, said Smith. Vehicles will only be able to travel at 15 or 20 mph in the village, he said. The roundabout should also alleviate some of the traffic backups that occur at peak times, he added.

“A roundabout simply processes cars faster,” Smith said.

Smith also said construction might not begin until 2016, after the design and permitting phases. The total cost of the project coming from state funding would be $1.2 million, although that number would most likely increase by 2016, he said.

During much of Smith’s slideshow presentation, he took questions and comments from citizens either challenging his data or expressing opposition to the project.

“Tonight’s statistics don’t persuade me that we need a roundabout,” said resident Ginger Isham, who also writes the “Recipe Corner” column for the Observer. “I think people are doing just fine (with the current intersection).”

Other residents questioned the Selectboard on why a traffic light was not considered. Selectman Chris Roy said that while a traffic light could diminish the rural character of the village, safety was the main concern. He said cars rushing through yellow lights could create more chances for serious accidents.

Resident Chapin Kaynor agreed with Roy’s assessment of a traffic signal and said something had to be done at the intersection beyond the current stop signs.

“Of all the alternatives, I’d like to see a roundabout,” Kaynor said.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said a petition of 750 resident signatures had been passed along to the Selectboard recently. The petition states that residents are against the proposed roundabout, but does not specifically call on the Selectboard to hold a referendum on the issue. Many who gathered Monday night expressed hope for a future public vote.

Roy said the Selectboard would likely discuss the roundabout at its June 1 meeting. A board member could call for a rescission vote at that time, Roy said. He also expected a discussion on the circulated petition.