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The DOT has a PR problem; give the roundabout a fair hearing

By Saturday, Nov 24, 2018 Viewpoints 11

It comes as no surprise that the proposed roundabout at the entrance to Great Barrington has sparked immediate, angry pushback. Maybe that’s because everyone who has a driver’s license has strong feelings about traffic engineering.

But here’s the thing;  just because I use a faucet doesn’t make me a plumber. The data and science of  traffic studies and engineering are real, verifiable things. Wouldn’t it be foolish to dismiss them out of hand,  assuming we know better?

The majority of negative opinions about the roundabout can be summed up like this:

  1. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” (and “don’t spend the money.”)
  2. “How can this intersection be dangerous when I use it every day?”
  3. “Roundabouts are baffling and unsafe.”
  4. “With a roundabout, traffic will be backed up to Bridge Street.”

Here are answers the DOT gave to these objections in a public hearing this week.

  1. It does need fixing. The intersection of Routes 7 and 23 isin fact broken – it’s in disrepair,  doesn’t meet code for pedestrians,  offers no options for bikes,  and has an unacceptably high “crash rate.” The high crash rate is why the roundabout project qualifies for federal highway safety funds. (No local money is being spent.)
  2. It is dangerous. The signalized intersection is dangerous because of high approach speeds. Route 23 has a very wide, low-angle entry to Route 7, essentially the ‘”lingshot effect” like a highway on-ramp. When drivers try to beat the light (a common occurrence) their speed can top 55-60 mph — in an intersection with no bike lanes or pedestrian safety.

The intersection is also dangerous because lines of waiting vehicles can block the Police Department, obstructing emergency response.

  1. Roundabouts make sense.They are common all over the world and quickly understood. Because all traffic flows in one direction, roundabouts have a better safety record – fewer crashes and lower-impact events than high-speed signalized intersections.
  2. Roundabouts move traffic better. Because roundabouts eliminate 30-second wait times and “queuing,” they process traffic volumes more efficiently than signals. Current and future volumes would be better handled.

Again, it’s easy to say “I use it, therefore I know,’ but maybe the pros actually DO know. It’s all too easy nowadays to dismiss professionals and scientists as partisans, or disbelieve hard data that “just doesn’t feel right.”

We all know the DOT isn’t exactly popular – it seemed to catch the blame for Barrington’s Main Street makeover. But its mission is safety, and the GB Police and Fire Departments are on board with this project.

I would like to see us give the roundabout a fair hearing. It might just be that traffic engineers (and drivers all around the world) know what they’re doing.

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