North Bend discusses roundabouts

NORTH BEND - There is some circular reasoning going on in North Bend.

The future of Southeast Cedar Falls Way and North Bend Way, one of the more frustrating intersections in the city, is being considered by the City Council. The intersection has long been a pain for drivers, especially those waiting to get onto the busy North Bend Way from Southeast Cedar Falls Way during rush hour traffic.

One of the solutions may be a roundabout. Similar to a traffic circle or rotary, a modern roundabout would direct traffic around a circle with exit points leaving the intersection. Unlike a traffic circle or rotary, the roundabout has features that make it safer and more accommodating to high-traffic volumes, said Brian Ray, a traffic engineer with Kittelson & Associates in Portland, Ore., who gave a presentation to the North Bend City Council last month.

"It is not a traffic circle, it is not a rotary," he said. "It's a roundabout."

A roundabout would allow drivers to come to the intersection and wait at a yield sign for an opening. They would then enter traffic, travel in the one-lane circle until their exit and leave.

At the meeting, Ray pointed out that traditional traffic control measures may not be the best solution for the intersection. A stop sign, especially in rural areas, forces drivers to make judgments on traffic openings that are not always correct. Traffic lights are familiar, but they can also back up traffic.

Roundabouts have benefits that should be considered, Ray said. A roundabout lends itself to only minor collisions, such as sideswipes and rear ends, as opposed to traditional intersections that can have more dangerous angle and head-on collisions. The number of collisions can decrease as well, according to Ray, who presented data from a study that showed a 73-87-percent reduction in average annual accidents, annual injury accidents, mean total accident rate and mean injury accident rate at 15 state highway intersections that converted to single-lane roundabouts from April 1992 to December 2000.

He also cited a traffic study that showed the average delay time for a left turn at an intersection with a traffic light was between 12-16 seconds, while the delay time at a roundabout was less than four seconds.

There are aesthetic and economic benefits as well. The center island of a roundabout can be made as nice or simple as a community wants it to be. Ray also estimated that the annual maintenance of a roundabout is less than that of a traffic light. Roundabouts can also act as a kind of gateway to a city, signifying the beginning and end of retail districts such as North Bend Way.

Councilman Mark Sollitto said later that the benefits of a roundabout are worth a careful consideration by the city.

"Roundabouts are safer and cheaper," he said.

Ray said not all members of community will be excited about roundabouts and that it is common for a majority of them to be against roundabouts. Those who have experience dealing with traffic circles back in the eastern part of the United States or in Europe may not have a favorable view of them since the first traffic circles were not built for the high-traffic volumes.

The modern roundabout, however, is built for high traffic. There are cross walks and islands in the roundabouts for pedestrians. They also require all entering traffic to yield and are designed so that cars have to slow down before entering.

"You can't 'run' a roundabout," Sollitto said.

Some City Council members were not so impressed. Councilman Chris Garcia said a roundabout would be too frustrating for visiting motorists not familiar with the intersection, something a tourist town such as North Bend can't afford.

"I don't think one should go there, period," he said.

Garcia also wondered what kind of impact the roundabout would have on nearby businesses that may have entrances affected by the change. He added that it was decided last year when North Bend reviewed its traffic plan that a traffic light would be a better choice.

"When we went over the traffic plan last year, it was first 'roundabout, roundabout, roundabout,'" Garcia said. "We voted 4-1 to have it 'traffic light, traffic light, traffic light.'"

Ray said there are statistics that show a change of heart once a community has a roundabout. A 2002 study based off surveys in Kansas, Maryland and Nevada showed a majority of public opinion against roundabouts before they were built. After they went in, however, more than 60 percent of the community had a favorable attitude toward roundabouts.

North Bend Public Works Director Ron Garrow said all of the presentations and work are preliminary and that no decisions will be made until more data is gathered and considered later this summer.

Brian Walsh, a technical services manager with the Washington State Department of Transportation, said that roundabouts have been showing up around the state since University Place built one in 1997. There are 58 existing roundabouts in the state and an additional 47 planned and proposed as of March of this year.

"What North Bend is going through is kind of a microcosm of what is going on in the state and what the state is going through is a kind of microcosm of what is going on in the nation," Walsh said.

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