Mayor eyes roundabout solution

Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen has a transportation idea that’s catching on throughout the Northwest.

She’d like to explore the possibility of placing a roundabout at the city’s south end, where there’s now a traffic light at the intersection of Swantown Road and Highway 20.

“I believe we have a great opportunity to focus on a highway entry design that speaks to who we are,” Cohen said. “Something distinctive, that lends itself to the character of the community.”

Roundabouts are increasingly being used in place of traffic lights at high-volume intersections. They typically feature three entry points, with motorists traveling around a circle as they make a turn, or continue through an intersection. Motorists wait for a break in traffic before entering the circle instead of relying on a stoplight to tell them when to go.

A mainstay in European countries, as well as older parts of the United States, particularly on the East Coast, roundabouts are becoming increasingly popular on the West Coast.

In just the past few years, two roundabouts have popped up in nearby Skagit County. One sits at the entrance to La Conner and the other guides traffic near the Swinomish Northern Lights Casino.

“We’re seriously analyzing them everywhere we can,” said Todd Carlson, planning and operations manager for the Washington state Department of Transportation office in Burlington.

Cohen’s desire to place a roundabout at Oak Harbor’s southern end isn’t just wishful thinking. The city recently signed off on a $150,000 engineering study of the heavily trafficked portion of Highway 20 that stretches from Swantown Road to Beeksma Drive. That study, which includes $107,000 in city funds, is aimed at eventually widening this busy traffic area by including an additional north and south lane.

The logistics of placing a roundabout at the Swantown intersection will be considered during this design process.

In La Conner, a new roundabout was built around a pioneer monument, which sits at the entrance of town. Although many residents expressed concerns before the roundabout was constructed, most have gotten used to it, said the town’s administrator Gloria Rivera.

Many were especially worried the roundabout would cause backups during the popular Tulip Festival.

Instead, Rivera said, the roundabout “helped ease traffic congestion.”

Indeed, roundabouts slow traffic but they also allow for a steady flow. That’s because cars enter the roundabout whenever there is room, instead of waiting at a red light.

“It can be a little annoying at first,” said Carlson of the DOT. “But once you get used to them they’re really smooth.”

Carlson added that accident data show roundabouts cause a few more accidents than the average intersection with traffic lights, but those accidents tend to be mild fender benders rather than serious T-bones and rear-enders.

“Injury and death is almost nonexistent,” Carlson said.

For Cohen, the chance to place a roundabout at Oak Harbor’s entryway was too good an opportunity to pass up.

The roundabout could be landscaped and include artwork. It would give motorists a chance to pause, soaking in the view of the bay and the city below, before they head down the hill.

Cohen, an Oak Harbor native, noted that locals have long referred to the intersection as Cackle Corner. That’s because there used to be a hen house at the top of the hill, Cohen said, and people in the lowlands would hear the roosters crowing in the morning.

It might be nice to celebrate that bit of city history with, say, a bronze rooster at the center of the roundabout.

“That would truly add to the character of that neighborhood up there,” she said. “It would be unique to Oak Harbor.”

Cohen, along with other community leaders, says she’s worried about the increasingly generic look of Oak Harbor, with its big-box retail stores and national chains.

“We look like places where we just came from. We’re getting very homogenous looking,” she said. “I’m suggesting that we pay better attention to how we develop our community.”

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