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Roundabouts enthuse traffic planners

A simple traffic control device that’s popular in Europe has become all the rage within the bureaucracy of the Washington State Department of Transportation.

A team of DOT planners recently told Oak Harbor City Council that the device, called a roundabout, may be the part of the solution to the congested, restrictive and ugly strip of Highway 20 from Swantown Avenue to Cabot Street.

Steve Powers, the city development services director, said DOT planners and city staff have worked together on a $30,000 corridor study of the busy section of the highway since last fall. The purpose, he said, is to find comprehensive and creative solutions to improving the road and handling traffic to the year 2030.

The planners held a workshop with the City Council to share some of the ideas. The city and the DOT have tentative plans to share the study with the community at a workshop March 31.

In addition to roundabouts, the planners are looking at providing parallel routes to the highway, like completing the gap in Barrington Drive behind Wal-Mart; adding lanes in the stretch between Beeksma and Swantown; creating U-turn pockets to make it easier to get to businesses; and installing major landscape improvements, including possible plantings on a median.

“We have four main goals,” said Todd Carlson, DOT planning and operations manager. “Safety, congestion, access to businesses and aesthetics.”

Carlson suggested that a number of roundabouts could be installed on the highway, not just at Swantown – as Mayor Patty Cohen previously suggested. Roundabouts, Carlson said, are basically four-way intersections with a barrier stuck in the middle, pushing traffic in a circle.

“We’re building them all over the place,” he said. “They are very, very safe.”

Also, he said they dramatically increase traffic flow and are much less expensive than signal lights to install or maintain. And they look good. He said trees, flowers or even a defunct Navy airplane could sit in the middle.

The biggest drawback, he said, is public perception. He said that studies show that about 60 percent of drivers are opposed to roundabouts before they go in. They are new and different, he surmised, so people are cautious. But once people have a chance to use one, about 60 percent of drivers like them.

Roundabouts work so well, Carlson said, that DOT is now required to consider roundabouts as option when installing intersection controls.

Powers said engineers are running all the proposed changes, along with the projected traffic volume to 2030, through a DOT computer traffic modeling program. He said engineers can use different ways to “transition” traffic in order to make sure it doesn’t bottleneck when the highway goes back down to one lane each way outside city limits.

Once the design work is complete, the city and state will begin to look for funding for the projects. The city already has already committed to spending $107,000 in traffic impact funds and $45,000 in grant money from the state Transportation Improvement Board for engineering and design studies in the Swantown-to-Beeksma stretch.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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