State Senator Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) represents parts of four counties: Milwaukee, Waukesha, Racine, and Walworth. Her Senate District 28 includes New Berlin, Franklin, Greendale, Hales Corners, Muskego, Waterford, Big Bend, the town of Vernon and parts of Greenfield, East Troy, and Mukwonago. Senator Lazich has been in the Legislature for more than a decade. She considers herself a tireless crusader for lower taxes, reduced spending and smaller government.
A respectful audience turned out Thursday night at a state Department of Transportation (DOT) information session at Muskego City Hall about roundabouts. The proposed $6.5 million reconstruction of the Interstate 43/Racine Avenue interchange includes reconstruction of Racine Avenue from College Avenue to Julius Heil Drive, ramp reconstruction, a new deck for the Racine Avenue bridge over I-43 and two roundabouts to be constructed for the on-and off-ramps of the freeway. Work will begin during late April or early May 2009 and projected to be completed during November 2009.
Thursday night’s crowd in Muskego may not have been as large as the one that attended a recent DOT information session in New Berlin, but residents once again expressed concerns about roundabouts planned for their community. Following a discussion by Mark Lenters of Ourston Roundabout Engineering, citizens posed questions.
One resident asked specifically about speed limits. Mark Lenters responded that there would not be posted speed limit signs at or inside the roundabouts. Instead, signs for the roads leading to the roundabouts will govern the speed limit. Lenters said the geometry of the roundabouts slows people down, and that the average speed for roundabouts is 15-20 miles per hour.
When the citizen asking the speed limit questions reacted, stating a concern about increased accidents, Lenters responded that roundabouts are not perfect, but they are safer. The citizen submitted that just as much emission of greenhouse gasses will occur at roundabouts as at controlled intersections. Lenters answered that though it would seem that way, studies show otherwise. Lenters concluded his answer saying that roundabouts are worth any delay in traffic if they save lives.
There were also questions raised about snowplows, tractor-trailers, combines and their ability to negotiate the circle. Mark Lenters said roundabouts are designed that tractor-trailers driving the inside lane may drive over the lines and toward the median of the roundabout. Residents that use the area planned for roundabouts daily are also concerned about the construction schedule and the effect on homeowners and businesses in the surrounding area.
I asked Mark Lenters whether the proposed Muskego roundabouts would be like the questionable design of the roundabout at 1-43 and Moorland Road in New Berlin in that motorists will be confronting a roundabout with access coming off an expressway, and theater, restaurant, or other commercial traffic in close proximity. Lenters said no, and I told him that while the proposed Muskego roundabouts are not likely to be as problematic as the one in New Berlin, the feedback I have received on this issue from constituents is overwhelmingly negative.
I also asked about legal issues raised by the disabled and their concerns about roundabouts and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Lenters was aware and conceded that visually impaired have obvious difficulties and that signals must be placed at roundabouts, not all of them, but where requests have been made by blind residents living near, and impacted by, such roundabouts.
Prior to Thursday night’s information session, I spoke with a state transportation official in neighboring Illinois. I was informed Illinois removed their traffic circles in the 1940’s and are cautionary with roundabouts because of design concerns. During our conversation, the Illinois official explained that roundabouts increase safety; however, they are very sensitive to small changes in design. He explained that roundabouts must be properly designed and that design knowledge and expertise about small changes is in very few hands. He said the information is not in books, and not available to learn, one has to learn about designing roundabouts from someone that knows the knowledge. He mentioned proper design depends on not having stoplights nearby. He said that stoplights create platoons of traffic and that roundabouts work best with an even flow of traffic. He mentioned Barry Crown of the United Kingdom. Crown is considered the world’s best authority on roundabouts. I asked Mark Lenters whether he had ever heard of Crown. Lenters smiled and said, “He’s my mentor.” The Ourston Roundabout Engineering website says, “Lenters began collaboration in 1999 with Barry Crown of England, the best roundabout designer in the world, and in 2002 with Leif Ourston, the most experienced roundabout designer in the United States.”
Lenters spoke about a roundabout disaster in Clearwater Beach, Florida. Lenters’ mentor, Barry Crown wrote about it in a response to the Wall Street Journal during January 2002. Buried in Crown’s article is this line:
“The lesson to be learnt is not that roundabouts are bad for the US, but that design faults lead to failure while good design produces roundabouts that are safer than any other type of at-grade intersection in the United States.”
Brown says, “Design faults lead to failure.” Precisely, I continue to have serious concerns about the design at the Moorland Road roundabout in New Berlin. Some roundabouts are not ready for prime time and the state should slow down the pace of its construction plans so that designs can be improved, particularly at locations similar to Moorland and I-43. Maybe it would not be a bad idea to consult with Mr. Crown about Moorland and I-43 and any other planned roundabouts that are near commercial development and have stoplights nearby. Single lane roundabouts seem to function much better than dual lane roundabouts.
The state DOT has offered to work with me about signage and I appreciate that; however the DOT position is clear. Though staff are friendly and responsive, their standard answers seem to be that roundabouts are safer, studies prove it, more education is needed, they will take time, motorists have to be patient, and in time they will grow to accept and appreciate roundabouts. Thus far, the DOT’s efforts to reassure have not been very persuasive.