Traffic circles, and their first-cousin the roundabout, are rippling through the news.
Matt Machado, Stanislaus County’s director of public works, wants to use one to tie traffic from the proposed North County Corridor into Highway 120 east of Oakdale. People who live in nearby neighborhoods don’t like it; the city of Oakdale is irate.
People in Escalon are upset, too. But not because they’re being forced to use a roundabout, because they’re losing one they love.
San Joaquin County traffic officials are planning to remove the roundabout at McHenry Avenue and River Road, just across the Stanislaus River, in advance of a construction project. County traffic engineers anticipate getting an earful Monday evening at the Escalon Community Center (5:30 p.m.).
“It has been receiving very good feedback,” said engineer Firoz Vohra, who introduced roundabouts to Modesto and Stanislaus County. “Almost everybody is now saying we don’t want to lose this roundabout.”
With a four-way stop, drivers on McHenry had to endure waits of at least 3 minutes and often 7 minutes driving south every morning. That was nothing compared to the trip home. Traffic could back up to Stewart Road nearly a mile south of the river. Getting to the stop sign could take 20 or 25 minutes.
Now, it’s rare for even 10 cars to be waiting to enter the round-about from any direction.
So why replace something that’s safer, reduces air pollution and popular with motorists? Because that was the plan all along.
San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties have been planning to add a new span across the Stanislaus River for years. Engineers felt hemmed in by a canal west of the road and the river on south. They didn’t want to take orchard land from the farmer at the only other corner, so they decided to “signalize” the intersection.
“We have to design for 20 years out,” said Mike Selling, deputy director of engineering, who noted the federal government paid much of the cost, in part to mitigate air-quality concerns.
Ooops. According to the Federal Highway Administration, roundabouts are far more efficient than four-way stops or signals. Efficiency means fewer idling cars and less pollution.
But aren’t they dangerous? No, they can reduce accidents by 80 percent, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
“Let’s not dwell on how many accidents,” said Vohra. “We should be looking at the quality of accidents. ... If you have more fender benders but fewer injuries or fatalities, which way would you sway? For me, if you can save a life, or keep someone from being a paraplegic compared to someone having to replace a $1,500 bumper, well …” the choice is obvious.
And roundabouts designed for high-volume traffic – like on Highway 120 – slow traffic long before it reaches the circle.
“The upstream geometry will require motorists to lower their speed before entering the roundabout,” said Vohra. “By the time you come to the round-about, you’ll be at 20 miles per hour.”
Cost is a significant factor in Machado’s thinking. But there are better reasons to have cars going round in circles.
And if the folks in Oakdale are nervous, they should drive over to River and McHenry and see how smoothly traffic flows.
Unfortunately, they’ll have to come soon. Construction on the new bridge and intersection is set to begin in a matter of months, and when it starts the hated four-way stop will return until construction is completed in roughly three years, said Selling. If Oakdale folks don’t want their roundabout, Escalon drivers will gladly take it.