Roundabouts: Into the local roads they go … when will it stop? Nobody knows

Into the local roads they go … when will it stop? Nobody knows

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 
photoCars navigate a new roundabout Friday on Hwy. 14 in Camas/Washougal.
photoCars navigate a new roundabout on Hwy. 14 in Camas/Washougal.

Many Clark County commuters have been introduced to them in the past year. Now, drivers will have to get used to them.

Roundabouts are here to stay. And expect to see more of them as state transportation planners increasingly look to the circular intersections as a way to control traffic without signals.

By year’s end, the Washington State Department of Transportation will have put seven roundabouts on or near state highways in Clark County -- six of them installed since last year. The county constructed a roundabout in the Salmon Creek area last summer, and another sits in front of Vancouver City Hall. Others exist in Woodland, just across the Clark-Cowlitz county line.

The trend has changed the way some major local thoroughfares function. But not all drivers are celebrating, and it’s clear some are still getting used to navigating them.

“It’s a learning process anytime we put these in,” said Chris Tams, a WSDOT area engineer based in Vancouver. “Folks have to learn how to drive them.”

Tams helps lead two active projects that incorporate the feature: the widening of state Highway 14 in Camas and Washougal, which adds four roundabouts just off the highway, and another job that will put two roundabouts near the interchange of state Highway 501 and Interstate 5 in Ridgefield.

In Camas and Washougal, diverted commuter traffic is already flowing through two new roundabouts along a frontage road while crews work on the main highway to the north. The shift also reduced the speed limit to 25 mph through the area.

On a recent afternoon, some drivers still appeared uncertain or hesitant approaching the new feature. The occasional car stopped before entering the roundabout. (You’re required to yield only if there’s other traffic making its way around.)

“I think ultimately it will be great for the city,” said Washougal resident Chris Termini. “Right now, it’s a little tough for everybody.”

Termini works as general manager of the Washougal Best Western, and travels through the area often. He’s used to the new setup. Part of the challenge is that others simply aren’t, he said -- some motorists might be surprised by the lower speed limit, or the roundabouts themselves.

“I think it’s harder on people that haven’t been here in a while than for the locals,” Termini said.

People at a nearby gas station noted that it can be tough to get through the new intersections from a side street, against the main east-west traffic flow. One described a close call , narrowly avoiding a collision with another vehicle. All agreed on one point: They’re looking forward to the project’s completion.

Benefits

State transportation officials see roundabouts as a more efficient way to move traffic through an intersection. Engineers consider the feature a relatively new tool, an alternative where stoplights have dominated for decades, said Brian Walsh, a WSDOT traffic engineer in Olympia.

Officials point to better flow and lower cost among the benefits. Though they can carry a higher up-front price tag, roundabouts require basically zero maintenance once they’re in place, said WSDOT spokeswoman Abbi Russell. Signalized intersections can cost thousands of dollars per year to keep up, she said.

Washington now has 220 roundabouts on public roads, Walsh said, including 65 on state highways. More are on the way.

Roundabouts aren’t the same as traffic circles, which function differently and in many cases have been around longer. The difference: Traffic circles tend to use straight-on approaches, and often include signals or stop signs -- think the main entrance to the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

Cities haven’t always embraced roundabouts even as they’ve become more common in recent years. In Washougal, city leaders recently voted to remove two roundabouts from a future transportation plan that would have put them on Highway 14, east of the existing WSDOT project. Officials also killed a proposed roundabout on E Street in 2010, saving close to $2 million on a road project there, said Mayor Sean Guard.

“Really what it came down to is dollars and cents,” Guard said of the latter decision.

Washougal residents still hold mixed opinions on the benefits of roundabouts as they adjust to the new setup on Highway 14, Guard said. There haven’t been many accidents since the shift, according to Tams, and WSDOT officials have said they’re pleased with how well traffic has flowed through the area.

Guard agreed.

“I believe they will always function fine as long as you recognize what they’re there for, as long as you get used to them, and as long as you follow the rules of the road,” Guard said.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.