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Palm Coast Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018 9 months ago

Residents: Proposed roundabout at U.S. 1 and Old Dixie Highway is a 'bad idea'

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FDOT held a meeting to take public comment about its roundabout proposal for the problem intersection. Locals said they want a traffic light instead.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

At a meeting that began about 15 minutes after yet another critical-injury crash at the intersection of U.S. 1 and Old Dixie Highway Jan. 18, residents told the Florida Department of Transportation that they don't want FDOT's proposed solution for the notoriously dangerous stretch of road: a roundabout.

At one point, a resident in the audience held up a board displaying a graphic of the proposed roundabout. 

"Will a roundabout eliminate crashes totally? No. But it will mitigate the consequences."

— STEVE OLSON, Florida Department of Transportation spokesman

"Does anybody in this room like this design?" he asked. "No," the crowd shouted in unison.

Residents had listened politely to an FDOT slide presentation about the proposed changes — right up until an animated slide showed how the roundabout is supposed to work, with cars winding their way around the proposed traffic circle. Then the laughter started. “Good luck with that,” one person murmured. “Where are the motorcycles?” exclaimed another. “That is going to be confusing,” said a third.

FDOT hosted the Jan. 18 meeting at the Community Baptist Church on Old Dixie Highway to present its proposal to the community and get locals' feedback. 

The intersection now has only flashing lights, not a regular signal. Six people died there last year in two crashes, and residents have pressed for engineering changes.

But none of the 21 residents who spoke at the meeting Jan. 18 voiced strong support for a roundabout over the other potential solution of a traffic light.

Locals arrive at the Community Baptist Church on Old Dixie Highway for FDOT's meeting about a proposed roundabout at the U.S. 1 and Old Dixie Highway intersection. (Photo by Jonathan Simmons)

The greatest consideration for the proposed benefits of a roundabout came from Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly, who said he favored a traffic light but understood the agency's thinking on roundabouts: In a roundabout, whatever crashes would occur would be less severe than the crashes seen at regular intersections, since in a roundabout the traffic is heading the same direction — reducing the potential for deadly head-on or T-bone crashes.

Staly had appealed repeatedly last year to FDOT for the addition of a regular traffic light at the intersection and for an accelerated timeline on the project, which was initially planned for 2021. FDOT then moved the proposed construction start date to October 2018.

THE PROPOSAL

The proposed road project would encompass the intersection itself and about half a mile of road surrounding it. The selling point of the proposed roundabout is safety: Roundabouts have fewer potential conflict points — or possible collision scenarios — than regular four-way intersections: just eight instead of the 32 that come with an intersection.

And because the traffic is heading the same direction and the roundabout would force drivers to slow down, crashes would be the less-deadly slow-speed side-to-side crashes rather than the high-speed head-on or T-bone crashes common at regular four-way intersections.

"Since I’m not a traffic engineer, I will defer to you as the experts for the solution, as doing nothing will only perpetuate the likelihood of additional fatalities and serious injuries."

— RICK STALY, Flagler County sheriff, addressing FDOT about FDOT's proposal to add a roundabout at U.S. 1 and Old Dixie Highway

FDOT presented some statistics about the benefits of roundabouts versus regular intersections: Roundabouts reduce fatalities by 90%, injuries by 68% and serious crashes by 78%-82% when compared to conventional intersections, according to FDOT's presentation.

The roundabout on U.S. 1 would be large enough to accommodate tractor trailers, school buses and farm vehicles.

The speed limit would be reduced dramatically on either side of it so drivers enter at slow speed. 

Unlike other potential solutions to the intersection, the roundabout wouldn't require buying additional right-of-way.

Roundabouts also reduce driver wait times by an average of about 30 seconds, according to the presentation.

The proposed project on U.S. 1 would involve closing the median openings to Old Dixie Highway, County Road 325 and Trojan Road, and adding a median opening 900 feet north of the roundabout, with a left turn lane, to allow for U-turns. U-turns, according to the presentation, are statistically safer than direct left turns, reducing the potential for accidents by 18% and fatalities by 27%.

THE REACTION

By the time members of the public spoke during the meeting, they'd seen FDOT's presentation.

Most were unconvinced.

Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly speaks at a meeting Jan. 18 about FDOT's proposal for a roundabout at U.S. 1 and Old Dixie Highway.(Photo by Jonathan Simmons)

Staly spoke first. He thanked FDOT for moving up the project timeline — saying he was sure it would save lives — then gave the audience some background information: From January 2014 through November 2017, there were 219 crashes at or near the intersection, 157 causing injuries, he said. Last year, six people died there, five of them in a three-car crash in February, and one in a motorcycle collision with a semi truck in November.

"These roadways were built when we were a rural county," Staly said. "Growth has outpaced the current design."

He told the audience that a crash had occurred just 35 minutes before, leaving someone with critical injuries; the victim was life-flighted to Halifax Hospital.

And the Sheriff's Office and Florida Highway Patrol don't have the staffing to dedicate strict traffic enforcement at the intersection, he said, necessitating an engineering solution combined with enforcement and education.

He'd voiced concerns about a roundabout and had advocated a traffic light, he said. But, he said, "Since I’m not a traffic engineer, I will defer to you as the experts for the solution, as doing nothing will only perpetuate the likelihood of additional fatalities and serious injuries," Staly said. 

One resident, George Mayo, also said he preferred a light to a roundabout, but was willing to keep an open mind and would appreciate seeing more statistics on roundabouts versus traffic lights.

The rest of the residents who spoke at the meeting used their speaking time to tell FDOT why they opposed the proposed roundabout.

"To me, that roundabout looks like a garbage disposal where cars will go in and bikes will go in and it’ll grind it all up and you’ll have metal all over the place."

— MARK LANGELLO

"Honestly we can’t even navigate the roundabout in the Target shopping center, let alone on a highway," said Rebecca O'Shane, a local nurse. "We have a bar at this intersection. We have the bikers that frequent that bar. … So many things that are a huge deterrent for a situation like this. A big red light would be the solution to a situation like this."

Another resident, Marvin Clegg, said he'd been a volunteer firefighter and had responded to crashes where he'd wished he had Jaws of Life — the extrication tool used to cut crash victims out of damaged vehicles. 

He said he hoped FDOT was just floating the roundabout as a trial balloon and would be willing to "back off and say 'No, let's try some other things that make a little more sense and certainly cost less money.'"

"What you're going to be doing with this proposal is to force traffic off of 325 and Old Dixie to go into what I call this Russian roulette of a roundabout, whereas right now they don't have to do that; they can stay off of U.S. 1," Clegg said.

He suggested buying a nearby property, straightening the road out, and closing the median crossing the intersection and placing one a ways down the road so that people would have to do a U-turn rather than a direct left.

Another resident, Mark Langello, said he didn't think traffic would slow down enough to make the roundabout safe, and that the region's twice-yearly motorcycle festivals would be a problem for a roundabout because they'd be bringing in large numbers of bikers who aren't familiar with the area.

"I think it's a very bad idea," he said. "To me, that roundabout looks like a garbage disposal where cars will go in and bikes will go in and it’ll grind it all up and you’ll have metal all over the place."

Gerard Flovak, 79 and a lifelong county resident, was blunt.

"This roundabout is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of," he said. "This is a highway divided to move traffic. To put a roundabout in the middle of a highway to slow down traffic whether there's any opposing traffic or not is just not good for ... the whole idea of having a highway. Let’s keep this traffic moving. ... A red light probably is the thing to do."

County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin, whose district includes the intersection, listened to most of the other residents before speaking. He'd spoken his opposition to the proposed roundabout previously in commission meetings, saying he worried that inattentive drivers would slam right into the traffic circle and that large commercial and farm vehicles wold have trouble navigating it.

"This just isn't going to work for the situation we're in," he said at the Jan. 18 meeting. "It just doesn't make sense in anybody's mind that you'd take a 65-mph highway and say, 'We're going to slow you down with a blind curve and put you in a roundabout.' So please, on behalf of Flagler County, don't treat a roundabout as the answer to every situation. It's not. Let's do a little bit more homework — please — and come back with a better solution."

The audience clapped and cheered.

Several residents said they felt like the FDOT plan for a roundabout was a "done deal" and the public hearing a formality. 

WHAT'S NEXT?

Speaking after the meeting adjourned, FDOT spokesman Steve Olson said he'd noted the comments about the proposal being a done deal.

He acknowledged that the proposal is far into the design process already and that he couldn't say to what extent resident opposition might impact the agency's plans.

But, he said, "The team will take this and look at what the folks are saying. Maybe there are some tweaks we can make."

Rick Morrow, FDOT district director, said that when the agency takes public comment, "One of the key things we're looking for is information we had not considered."

Olson said FDOT got similar opposition when it proposed adding a roundabout on State Road 44 at Grand Avenue in Deland after an April 2016 crash at the intersection — which at the time had stop signs but not a regular light — killed a woman and her three grandchildren. A change.org petition opposing that roundabout got 1,129 signatures.

But, Olson said, the roundabout has functioned well since it was installed in February 2017: There have been no fatal or incapacitating-injury crashes there since the roundabout was added. There have been five crashes, including two with non-incapactating injuries, since the roundabout's installation; in the previous 12 month period, there were five crashes of which three caused injuries (two of them incapacitating) and another one killed four people.

"Will a roundabout eliminate crashes totally?" Olson said. "No. But it will mitigate the consequences."

FDOT is taking public comment about the proposed project, and comments submitted by Jan. 29 will become part of the official public hearing record. To submit a comment, email FDOT Project Manager Heidi Trivett at [email protected]. FDOT is compiling information about the project at cflroads.com. Search for project number 441210-1.

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