Homer lived up to its reputation for spirited discussion Tuesday night when the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities held meetings to discuss the results of the Homer Intersections Planning Study. Even before engineers made their presentation, groups of citizens looking at maps argued the merits of the big topic of contention: roundabouts.
"A roundabout is a stupid thing to do," said Stan Welles.
Welles, a white-haired, seasoned citizen himself, said roundabouts might work for younger, more aggressive drivers, but could be a challenge for elderly drivers.
"It's a logical way to keep traffic moving," said Gary Kulesza.
Kulesza, who grew up in New England, said roundabouts on Cape Cod work just fine, even with high numbers of older drivers and tourists.
The debate on the floor mirrored the question raised by the study: What is the best solution to congested intersections in the Central Business District and nearby areas? In terms of safety, operation and maintenance, the study recommended building seven modern roundabouts from Pioneer Avenue and the Sterling Highway to East Hill and East End Roads.
Engineers from DOT, USKH and Kinney Engineering analyzed traffic volume on both major and minor intersections from West Hill Road to East Hill Road and out to the Homer Spit. Eleven intersections were looked at for summer traffic conditions and three for winter conditions associated with school traffic. The engineers forecast volume for the present, 2011 and 2021, based on a figure of 2-percent annual growth.
The good news was that all the intersections are safe, with low-crash frequency rates.
The bad news is that the intersections are congested, with the Sterling Highway intersections identified as having immediate concerns for congestion. Other intersections would be of concern by 2011.
"This project is not about intersection safety," said Randy Kinney of Kinney Engineering. "It's about congestion."
Engineers looked at three solutions to congestion: all-way stops, traffic signals and modern roundabouts. Traffic designers use the term "modern roundabout" to distinguish the design from rotaries, traffic circles or older, poorly de-signed roundabouts.
Kinney said they had no bias toward any one solution.
"We're not roundabout guys, we're not signal guys," he said. "We're intersection guys."
The study also looked at pedestrian crossings and how to make moving across a two- or three-lane road safe. Traffic engineers like to give pedestrians a 14-second gap between vehicles to cross the time it would take a child or older person to cross. In places where the gap is down to nine seconds or less, the consultants recommended solutions like refuge islands, as were built at the intersection of the Sterling Highway and Poopdeck Street by the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center.
Another solution is to put in midblock "chokers," or curbs narrowing the street to slow down traffic and give pedestrians a shorter space to cross.
All-way stops wouldn't work except as an interim solutions, the study found. They could be used in the short term at Lake Street and the Sterling Highway popularly seen as the most congested intersection in town and at Pioneer Avenue and Main Street.
Signals or roundabouts?
The question narrowed to those options. Kinney said signals had their positive points: the initial construction cost is less, drivers are familiar with them and they reduce collisions. However, they can increase rear-end collisions, and operation and maintenance costs are high.
Roundabouts have a higher construction cost, particularly with acquiring the right of way to accommodate the 120- to 140-foot diameter needed. Drivers aren't as familiar with them. However, roundabouts are safer and in terms of maintaining traffic flow, equivalent or better to signals.
Roundabouts have fewer possible collision points between vehicles and vehicles and pedestrians. Kinney said a four-way signal intersection has 32 vehicle-to-vehicle collision points and 24 vehicle-to-pedestrian collision points. Roundabouts have eight vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-pedestrian collision points. In signals, collisions can be head-on or at right angles, while in roundabouts vehicles are glancing or sideways collisions less severe.
A New York Department of Transportation study showed that at 23 U.S. roundabouts, overall crashes at new roundabouts declined by 39 percent. Injury crashes declined by 76 percent and serious injury or fatal crashes declined by 89 percent.
Because roundabouts slow traffic down, pedestrian injuries from collisions are less severe. Kinney noted that at roundabout speeds of 20 mph or less, the pedestrian fatality rate is 15 percent, compared to 45 to 85 percent at intersection speeds of 30- to 40 mph.
The study also looked at extending roads. Extending Heath Street from its current location at Pioneer Avenue north along the west edge of the Homer High School parking lot could create problems. If two traffic signals were put in at Heath and Pioneer and Lake and Pioneer, the short distance between signals would mean prohibiting left turns on Pioneer Avenue into Kachemak Center and out of the Homer Fire Hall.
An alternate plan would be to make Heath Street north of Pioneer Avenue a small side street and to extend Lake Street north toward the high school. The Lake Street extension could provide access beyond the high school into the proposed Quiet Creek subdivision. A Lake Street extension would accommodate a roundabout better.
Scott Thomas, a DOT traffic engineer, compared the costs of building seven signal intersections against building seven roundabouts. Roundabouts would cost $9.5 million, with a $950,000 estimated state contribution. Maintenance would be zero.
Signals would cost $7 million, with a $700,000 state contribution. Maintenance is estimated at $10,000 a signal, or $70,000 a year, based on Anchorage costs. Kinney said in Homer maintenance might be two or three times higher. To keep signals operating, DOT would need an electrician on duty in Homer.
Thomas noted that DOT's maintenance budget keeps getting cut, and most likely signal maintenance would have to be paid for by the city of Homer.
The Lake Street and Sterling Highway intersection already has some traffic signal equipment installed, such as posts and wiring. Al Waddell, owner of Homer's Gold Mine Gifts at that intersection, said when he gave up right of way at the corner, as a condition he insisted the state put up the posts.
"It needs to have lights up there," Waddell said. "It would solve a lot of problems."
Could DOT install signals at Lake Street and the Sterling Highway as an interim solution? Thomas said that's possible, but didn't know what that would cost. He acknowledged DOT received a letter from City Manager Walt Wrede asking that question and said DOT would have a response soon.
Questions and concerns
Truckers and business owners raised the biggest concern about roundabouts. Guy Rossi and Bruce Turkington questioned how well 125-foot long, tractor-trailer trucks would negotiate roundabouts. Turkington, general manager of Spenard Builders Supply, already had written a letter to the Homer City Council raising some of these issues.
Val McLay, a city council member and a commercial driver, said Homer needs to keep its port growing a port used to haul freight from the spit north. Could trucks move through roundabouts easily?
"I see a detriment to freight traffic," he said.
One solution not considered was couplets, where traffic would go one way and the other way on a parallel street. Ken Castner he was disappointed the solution wasn't on the table.
"I'm a couplet guy," he said. "It addresses all the intersection problems."
To address the intersection congestion problem, the next step in the process is for the city to propose projects, Thomas said. On Monday night, the city of Homer passed the first reading of an ordinance to adopt the Homer Transportation Plan. That ordinance goes up for a public hearing June 27.
Anne Brooks, public in-volvement coordinator for the study, said public comments are solicited and can be accepted by July 20. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at (907) 272-1877. Information on roundabouts can be found at alaskaroundabouts.com or at www.contextsensitivesolutions.org/content/topics.
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