New Jersey Comes to PA (Western)? Roundabouts!

More and more Western Pennsylvania motorists soon could find themselves going around in circles.
And that’s just what PennDOT officials have in mind as they begin introducing roundabouts — small circular-shaped intersections in which traffic flows counterclockwise — in place of traffic lights or stop signs.
With statistics showing they’re safer, kinder to the environment and cheaper to maintain, roundabouts are proposed for several major road projects in the region:
• A $50 million reconstruction of the New Stanton interchange of Interstate 70 set to begin this summer will feature roundabouts on both sides of the road.
• A $10 million expansion of Route 981 near Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity calls for a roundabout near the airport entrance. The project is set to begin in 2016.
• A roundabout project costing $5 million is planned for Ekastown Road and Route 228/Saxonburg Boulevard in Clinton, Butler County. Construction would begin in summer 2016.
• Work began last year to install dual roundabouts on Route 519 at Brownlee and Thomas-Eighty Four roads in North Strabane. The project is slated to be completed in September.
The rush to build roundabouts stems from a federal mandate to PennDOT engineers to consider the circles for significant interchange projects, said Jeff Bucher, the state’s roundabout program coordinator.
PennDOT has 21 roundabouts built — mostly in other parts of the state — and 30 in the design stage, Bucher said.
Erie County’s first roundabout opened last year. Five others are planned or under consideration.
“So far, so good,” said Erie PennDOT design engineer Tom McClelland. “It replaced a three-legged intersection, handling about 13,000 cars a day.”
The thought of traffic traveling in circles, a concept used around the world, leaves some uninitiated drivers scratching their heads.
The circles were spoofed on the silver screen when actor Chevy Chase spent a day trapped in London’s infamous Lambeth Bridge circle, unable to exit the inner lane in “National Lampoon’s European Vacation.”
But experts are careful to point out there are design differences between roundabouts and large traffic circles, such as the one in the “National Lampoon” movie and the circles used since the early 1900s in Boston and other U.S. cities.
A roundabout is much smaller than a traffic circle, and traffic moves more slowly through a roundabout — about 15 to 25 mph versus the 30 to 50 mph preferred speed for traffic circles. Traffic circles often have numerous lanes and fell out of favor in the 1960s because of high crash rates attributed to speed and multiple lanes.
Researchers say there’s no question it takes some time for motorists to get the knack for navigating roundabouts.
“There is definitely a learning curve. I think we need more education,” said Eugene R. Russell Sr., professor emeritus of civil engineering at Kansas State University and chairman of a national task force on roundabouts.
He said the concept is actually simple.
Instead of intersections with sharp right or left turns, stop signs or red lights, drivers yield to enter the roundabout, where traffic flows almost continuously in one direction around a central island.
“I don’t see how people can have a problem with a single-lane roundabout,” said Russell, who has studied them since 1996. “It sometimes gets confusing in a multi-lane.”
The circles planned for Western Pennsylvania projects would be single-lane roundabouts.
Roundabouts began appearing in the United States during the 1990s. Today there are about 4,000. Florida and Washington state have the most — about 200 each, according to federal records.
Officials at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety say the safety and environmental benefits are undeniable:
• The tight circle of a roundabout forces drivers to slow down.
• Because of reduced speed, the most severe types of intersection crashes — right-angle, left-turn and head-on collisions — are unlikely.
• With better traffic flow, drivers spend less time with vehicles idling, reducing emissions and fuel consumption.
• Pedestrians, who walk on sidewalks around the perimeter of the circle and cross only one direction of traffic at a time, are safer.
Still, PennDOT officials are aware that news about planned roundabouts is not always well-received.
“Our experience is that there is some initial opposition,” Bucher said. “A lot of it is because people don’t understand it. Once we open them, we rarely get any complaints.”
Locally, reviews are mixed.
“People won’t pay attention to the yield signs,” said Paul Huchette, who with his wife, Mary, owns Sulkey’s Market in Latrobe. “Why do we need these?”
Darcell Morris, 58, who has lived near the Unity airport for nearly 30 years, believes drivers will just avoid the roundabout in her area.
“They’ll use the back roads,” she said. “This is an older population.”
But there are supporters.
“I think it would be great,” said Viola Burkhart, 79, of Latrobe, who has driven through several roundabouts in other states. “It would be safer and would speed up traffic.”
Myrna Halcomb, 76, of New Stanton hopes the roundabouts will ease gridlock in her town where Interstate 70 and the turnpike meet. She has seen them work in Michigan, where her son lives, and they appear to be effective.
Officials in Rochester, Beaver County, say their town is a model for how roundabouts can solve horrible traffic congestion.
A troublesome six-point intersection in the center of Rochester’s business district was replaced with a roundabout built with a state grant that the Beaver County Transit Authority obtained. Since it opened in May 2012, it has reduced congestion by at least 80 percent, officials said.
“It’s been a major success,” said Mary Jo Morandini, the transit authority’s general manager. “Dwell times are significantly less, and congestion has been reduced by 80 percent. The community really loves this project.”

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