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Backers push safety; doubters question need

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A state proposal to install roundabouts at two major Bartholomew County intersections has some residents worried about traffic slowdowns and driver confusion. But the Indiana Department of Transportation says the structures will save lives and reduce serious traffic accident injuries.

Local residents already criticized the proposed $1.7 million roundabout at U.S. 31 and Southern Crossing at an Indiana Department of Transportation public hearing in December.

Responding to their concerns, INDOT plans to widen the roundabout lanes to better accommodate farm equipment and angle the highway entrances for a more gradual approach into the circular intersection, said State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus.

Smith requested a second hearing for the changes to be discussed, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Clifty Creek Elementary School.

When the U.S. 31 roundabout near Elizabethtown was proposed in June 2012, state highway officials said the intersection had 21 crashes that resulted in seven injuries over a three-year period. That figure ranked the intersection among the top 5 percent of the state’s most dangerous, INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield said.

INDOT also wants a similar circular intersection east of Columbus, where State Roads 9 and 46 meet at the junction of East 25th Street, Bartholomew County Commissioners Chairman Carl Lienhoop said. The project would be funded through federal and state highway dollars, but a cost estimate is not yet available from INDOT.

Lienhoop said no local tax funds would be used. Both new roundabouts would be funded with state and federal highway dollars.

Up until the final week of January, the proposal for State Roads 9 and 46 had been little more than informal discussions about the possibility of a roundabout there, Lienhoop said. However, county officials have noticed a fair amount of stakes with orange ribbons at the site, Lienhoop said, leading them to believe that INDOT is doing preliminary work.

Bartholomew County has only one roundabout now, on Jackson Street near Mill Race Center in Columbus.

Arguments against the roundabouts range from driver confusion about how to navigate them and complaints about traffic backlogs as drivers slow to determine how to enter and exit.

Former police officer Mike Lovelace told commissioners he wanted to see the cost estimates for the State Road 9 and 46 proposal to see if it is justified.

“I just think someone is making a lot of money putting in these roundabouts,” he told the commissioners at a recent meeting.

“I don’t know anybody getting rich on roundabouts,” INDOT spokesman Harry Maginity said. “It’s not exactly brain surgery to build one, and since companies are hired through competitive bidding, nobody has got a corner on the market.”

Instead, the enthusiasm for roundabouts stem from a strong preference expressed by federal and state traffic engineers based not only on reduced injuries and fatalities but also that no driver is forced to stop for a red light when there’s no cross traffic, Maginity said.

“It’s a general yield that slows all traffic, instead of bringing any one driver to a complete stop,” Maginity said. “There are both safety and mobility benefits.”

If final approval is given by INDOT, the roundabout on the east end of Southern Crossing could be built next year, Wingfield said. INDOT informed county officials the structure east of Columbus could go up as early as 2016.

Like at U.S. 31 and Southern Crossing, there are doubters regarding the pressing need for a roundabout at State Roads 9 and 46.

“I reviewed the accidents we’ve investigated (at State Roads 9 and 46) over the past three years, and to be honest with you, I just don’t see many,” Bartholomew County Sheriff Department spokesman Maj. Todd Noblitt said.

That review showed seven accidents with six injuries occurring at that intersection from 2011 through 2013, Noblitt said.

While the Indiana State Police may have also investigated a few crashes at that location, Noblitt said those accidents would not have much of a statistical impact.

However, Noblitt does agree with INDOT officials who say that by reducing speeds, roundabouts reduce the number of serious injuries resulting from T-bone accidents at four-way-stop intersections.

Lienhoop recalled an INDOT official told the 40-member audience at December’s hearing that Carmel, just north of Indianapolis, reduced personal injury accidents by 78 percent after installing 60 roundabouts, more than any other U.S. city.

“I think one part of us would like to think: Well, do we have to be like Carmel?” Lienhoop said. “People may begin to think we’re going to have a roundabout at every intersection, instead of a stoplight.”

But the commissioner also said it’s tough to argue with statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that calculate a 76 percent reduction in injury accidents, as well as a 90 percent reduction in fatal crashes, at intersections replaced with roundabouts.

“Accidents on roundabouts tend to be sideswipes, which only damage property,” Lienhoop said. “But accidents at intersections tend to be T-bone crashes, which kill and injure many people every day,” Lienhoop said. “So by installing roundabouts, we might very well be saving our own lives at some point.”

Lienhoop added he witnessed a woman distracted by her cellphone drive 50 mph through the four-way stop at the junction of State Roads 9 and 46 in early January. “We need to eliminate these types of incidents,” he said.

Critics decry roundabouts

In a letter published Jan. 11 in The Republic, Nancy Wheeler addressed that particular concern.

“We are always going to have drivers who are not paying attention and plow through an intersection,” Wheeler wrote. “We have thousands of intersections all over the state. We can’t cure all these problems with roundabouts.”

In her letter, Wheeler described roundabouts as “an impediment to timely travel, a confusing entrance and exit strategy, plenty of blind spots for drivers, low speed entrance of 15 mph and a backlog of traffic waiting to enter wondering if they should go now.”

A similar letter from Gary Greiger of Columbus, published Jan. 25, was critical of INDOT’S comparison of southern Bartholomew County with the city of Carmel.

“This is a rural Elizabethtown location, compared to Carmel, which is more of an urban layout,” Greiger wrote. “It would be more convincing if we were to be shown similarly placed roundabouts on high-speed state highways.”

But in yet another letter published Jan. 11 in The Republic, former Hamilton County resident Ron Bodact, now of Columbus, said he felt it was a valid comparison.

“Having lived in Carmel during its initial roundabouts, I was apprehensive about their need or success,” Bodact wrote. “After using them for a while and knowing how to use them, I grew to realize how great they are to provide safe, smooth and faster transition at intersections that were previously major logjams.”

There are several roundabouts on rural highways around the state, with the closest one on State Road 144 near Mooresville, INDOT’s Maginity said.

Pushing ahead

The perception that INDOT has already decided to build the U.S. 31 roundabout — despite public objections — is also a concern.

“This sounds to me like a done deal,” Bartholomew County Councilman Jorge Morales said in December.

In his Jan. 25 letter to the editor, Geiger stated he left the December meeting “feeling this project was already predetermined.”

Bartholomew County Attorney Grant Tucker was one of the officials who attended the Jan. 30 meeting with the six INDOT representatives.

“They did give us the impression it’s going to happen,” Tucker said. “It seemed they were here to sell us it was going to be a good idea.”

Smith cautioned the project is still only a proposal.

“Of course, they will tell you they think it’s a good idea, or they wouldn’t have proposed it in the first place,” the 59th District state representative said. “But it’s not a done deal. They are still reviewing. I got that from (INDOT commissioner Karl Browning) himself.”

During the December hearing, Smith promised he would personally bring their concerns about the proposed roundabout to Gov. Mike Pence, a Columbus native.

INDOT agreed to have the second hearing on the proposed U.S. 31 roundabout “to satisfy my request that they handle everyone’s questions,” Smith said.

Following the Jan. 30 meeting with the state transportation representatives, Tucker said it was his understanding the state of Indiana had set aside enough funds to fund three priority projects along the entire U.S. 31 corridor in Indiana.

Figures produced by INDOT during the meeting suggest the junction of U.S. 31 and Southern Crossing is the third-most-dangerous intersection along the 266-mile corridor from Clarksville to the Michigan state line near South Bend, Tucker said.

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