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News / Clark County News

Amid concerns, two roundabouts planned for Highway 14

Transportation planners believe they will improve driver safety, enhance traffic flow

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 2, 2018, 6:01am
3 Photos
Traffic flows around the roundabout on Northwest Sixth Street near Highway 14. Drivers initially resisted a roundabout at the main entrance to the city but have since adapted to it.
Traffic flows around the roundabout on Northwest Sixth Street near Highway 14. Drivers initially resisted a roundabout at the main entrance to the city but have since adapted to it. Ariane Kunze/The Columbian Photo Gallery

WASHOUGAL — On any given day, Exterior Wood has dozens of tractor-trailers driving in and out of its yard at the Port of Camas-Washougal Industrial Park. So when the Washington State Department of Transportation proposed building two roundabouts on state Highway 14, company leaders got a little nervous.

“I had very mixed feelings — still do,” said Dave Perry, president of Exterior Wood.

He was just one of many people who had apprehensions about roundabouts on a state highway. Dave Scott, Washougal city administrator, said members of the city council were initially skeptical. Some members of the public have also spoken out against the project.

For about $7.6 million, WSDOT plans to build roundabouts on Highway 14 at 15th and 32nd streets. By doing so, transportation planners believe they will improve driver safety, enhance traffic flow and restore access to both directions of the highway from the north and south.

The project is in the design phase, with construction expected to begin sometime next spring.

Perry estimates that around 100 trucks per day serve the businesses, including Exterior Wood, operating within the port’s industrial park south of the highway. He was concerned with how drivers, in trucks and passenger cars alike, would handle switching from intersections controlled by traffic signals to roundabouts. But, “after a good meeting” with officials from WSDOT and local leaders, Perry said he’s feeling more confident.

“As far as maneuvering a semi around those, they’ve convinced us it’s going to be just fine. So we don’t have the apprehension we did at first,” he said. Still, he wonders if westbound drivers coming from the Columbia River Gorge will slow down in time to navigate a roundabout on a state highway.

Scott said city leaders also warmed to the idea after learning about the project’s potential benefits relative to other solutions such as building an overpass, which would be difficult to finance.

“When you weigh all of that and stir it all together, it became pretty clear this is a robust solution,” Scott said. “I think this is going to work well. Our council and our mayor became supporters of the project.”

WSDOT officials said apprehension, and even some skepticism, is normal when roundabouts are new to a community. Local drivers already have a taste of using roundabouts at the entrance to Camas and other spots adjacent to Highway 14, but these will be the first to be placed on the highway.

“A lot of folks don’t understand the benefits because they haven’t had a chance to drive through them that often,” said WSDOT spokeswoman Tamara Greenwell. “Once people start using them, they see the benefits. Things we’re not used to are uncomfortable.”

Being uncomfortable in a roundabout is the idea. Rather than enjoying a straight line of travel and looking down the road ahead, drivers have to actively engage with other drivers.

“We’ve found when you make people feel uncomfortable, they slow down and drive more defensively,” said WSDOT traffic engineer Scott Langer.

“The intersections that are the most straightforward are not necessarily our safest intersections. They kind of put (drivers) in autopilot so they think they can text and drive and be OK,” he said. “Roundabouts grab their attention.”

WSDOT officials say that not only do drivers pay better attention in roundabouts, but the intersections are intrinsically safer than those with traffic signals because they have only eight conflict points — locations where vehicles can collide. An intersection with traffic signals has 32 conflict points.

When cars do hit each other in a roundabout, they’re doing so at lower rates of speed, and the impacts aren’t direct strikes.

“At traffic signals, when someone messes up, they blow a red (light) for whatever reason, the crash is at full speed. Even at 30 mph, the likelihood of a fatality is very high,” Langer said. “With roundabouts, everything we see pretty much is sideswipes, (vehicles) are deflecting off of each other, and the speeds are down below 30 mph … because you’re creating the physical environment where they have to slow down.”

Camas Mayor Scott Higgins said his city’s latest roundabout at Northwest Sixth Avenue, built in 2016, was met with resistance by community members who would have preferred a traditional intersection with a traffic light, but over time people warmed to it.

“To me, it’s very obvious roundabouts have a little bit of a learning curve,” he said. “There was the voice (saying) ‘these are terrible.’ … Now, the majority of the comments I get is people like it.”

Columbian staff writer