Although roundabouts have sprouted in Modesto and various nearby cities, people still seem reluctant when new ones are proposed.
Who can blame them? Roundabouts can be scary, especially at first. They seem ... not quite American.
On the other hand, compared to traffic lights, roundabouts are more efficient. Because drivers don’t wait as long, their cars and trucks spew less pollution, and less noise. And when accidents occur at roundabouts, they’re less serious because vehicles deliver glancing blows instead of crushing T-bone or head-on collisions.
When a government agency announces intent to build a roundabout, the debate always gets people going around and around. Nowhere is that more true than with the North County Corridor, a future 18-mile expressway between Modesto and Riverbank and bypassing Oakdale.
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When people learned that traffic engineers were planning the expressway to tie into Highway 108-120 east of Oakdale with a roundabout near Atlas Road, entire neighborhoods became unglued. Consistent, well-organized protests last fall prompted the Oakdale City Council to adopt “guiding principles” condemning the idea – not only at Atlas, but anywhere east of town.
The City Council doesn’t have a vote in this decision, which belongs to the California Department of Transportation. But Caltrans says it listens to local agencies, so the latest theory assumes the roundabout will be pushed out four miles, closer to Lancaster Road. That location has hardly any neighbors, compared to hundreds near Atlas.
Problem solved? Not quite. After all, roundabouts are rarely popular when first floated, even out in the boonies.
The whole roundabout idea doesn’t sound like something that will work on a highway this busy.
Colleen Cordano, East Oakdale
“The whole roundabout idea doesn’t sound like something that will work on a highway this busy,” said Colleen Cordano, who lives near Atlas.
“I don’t know of a major highway that has a roundabout,” said Robert Lawrence, another Atlas neighbor. “I’d like to see how that operates.”
Public Works officials with the county decided to accommodate that request, and had their traffic consultant, Fehr & Peers, produce a simulation showing how the North County Corridor roundabout would function.
The computer-generated simulation shows a steady flow of cars and trucks slowing as they approach the circular intersection, then proceeding when there is a break in traffic. Rarely does one wait for more than a few seconds.
The mock-up was modeled on traffic projections for the year 2042 – doubled, because engineers are well aware that the busy highway east of Oakdale often bogs down with bumper-to-bumper snarls on holiday and summer weekends.
Average daily traffic now is about 15,000 vehicles and is projected to grow to 25,000 by 2042.
“We didn’t want to underestimate projections. This is a critical intersection,” said Matt Machado, Stanislaus County public works director, who showed the intriguing simulation to an audience at the latest meeting of the North County Corridor Authority.
There are lots of questions and debate about roundabouts. Without knowing the facts, people are convinced it won’t work.
Matt Machado, Stanislaus County public works director
“There are lots of questions and debate about roundabouts,” Machado said. “Without knowing the facts, people are convinced it won’t work. I wanted to show that it does.”
After viewing the simulation, some in the audience, including Lawrence, remained skeptical.
Is there other evidence?
Well, rush hour on McHenry Avenue toward Escalon used to back up traffic a mile, with cars commonly waiting 20 minutes or more. After San Joaquin County put a roundabout on rural McHenry at East River Road, cars usually sail right through.
Yes, that roundabout is outside town, but it’s still quite small compared to the monster planned east of Oakdale. Is there another nearby of that size that people can check out?
It’s a bit of a drive, but the one where 11th Street, also known as Highway 205, meets Grant Line and Kasson Roads east of Tracy is similar to Oakdale’s. Both feature four-lane roads, with two lanes around the circle.
All collisions there are fender-benders; people walk away from it.
Firoz Vohra, San Joaquin County senior transportation engineer
“It’s very, very good,” said Firoz Vohra, senior transportation engineer with San Joaquin County. “There is no wasted time waiting for red lights. And all collisions there are fender-benders; people walk away from it.”
Jennifer Yeszin’s business, Tracy Sign Inc., located there years ago when the intersection was controlled by stop lights, and she is an eyewitness to the roundabout’s entire history.
“You’ll hear honking, but nothing super crazy,” Yeszin said. “You always get a couple of people who are clueless. But you get the hang of it. The whole point is to keep the flow going.”
Roundabouts are more efficient, Vohra said, because vehicles theoretically could approach from four streets and all could enter the circular flow and continue with no delay. At best, a signalized intersection allows cars from only two directions at a time, and sometimes, only one.
So why are people often reluctant to embrace roundabouts?
“Any time new design is introduced, it is anticipated that the public will have some hesitance, and it is understandable,” said Rick Estrada, Caltrans public information officer, in an email. “Roundabouts are considered to be new in this area, though they are in use in communities scattered across the country. Drivers have not had enough experience driving through them.”
It’s true that large trucks sometimes have difficulty negotiating roundabouts, Estrada said, and Vohra said most glancing collisions occur when cars enter truckers’ blind spots.
“Driver expectations affect the success rate of roundabouts,” Estrada said. “There is a learning curve for drivers before they are used to driving them.”
Another drawback is cost, Estrada said, because roundabouts usually require more land than simple signals.
Atlas was my big concern. But I’m not wild about one at Lancaster, either. I just think it’s going to create problems for people out there.
Lana Dyer-Keevil, East Oakdale
However, cost is a major reason that transportation leaders favor the East Oakdale roundabout for the North County Corridor.
The alternative favored by many neighbors is a freeway-type offramp for westbound traffic that would cross over vehicles heading toward Sonora and drop down onto the North County Corridor toward Riverbank and Modesto. Initial drawings still on the Internet show that configuration.
“But when that question comes up, they say it’s much cheaper to do a roundabout,” said Kathe Poteet, who fought ardently against the idea of a roundabout at Atlas.
Ten times cheaper, Machado said Friday. And traffic projections don’t justify the cost of a ramp overcrossing, he said.
Many more questions will be explored in an upcoming draft environmental study, a milestone for the project. Years in the making, the document – full of predictions on how the $700 million expressway might affect people, farms and other businesses – may be released in a week or two; leaders are hoping to host a public hearing sometime in May.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390