Monday, October 31, 2011

A half-decade later, Winooski traffic circle still vexes

WINOOSKI — Cathy Simard was steaming Monday morning, parked in her minivan amid car fumes in standstill traffic waiting to get into the downtown Winooski traffic circle.

"I hate this Winooski circle. It's the stupidest thing they ever did," she said. "It's a traffic hazard."

Other drivers had a variety of grumbles about the traffic circle and the long lines of cars waiting to enter the circle to make their way to work and school. The common complaints: The people trying to turn left, waiting for traffic as cars line up behind them; the traffic signals at the circle's midpoint that allow pedestrians to cross but bring traffic to an exasperating standstill; the timid, foolish or clueless motorists who don't know how to navigate the circle effectively. And, the state says it's a high-crash location.

The morning commute is especially vexing for people coming in from the north and east toward the traffic circle. Cars and trucks back up along East Allen Street, up Main Street toward Colchester, and along side streets just west of the circle.

The Winooski traffic circle is more complicated than most roundabouts, which have fewer streets feeding into them, fewer pedestrians to deal with and lower traffic volumes, according to traffic engineers.

The city, working with a county transportation planning group, is trying to figure out how to make the traffic circle work better, especially from the standpoint of safety. The study is also focusing on the traffic problems on the northern and eastern parts of the circle.

"We're looking at different design alternatives that we could do with not much cost, just to improve safely as well as reduce congestion," said Eleni Churchill, senior transportation planning engineer with the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission. Churchill is coordinating the Winooski traffic circle study with the city.

The Circle

The Winooski traffic circle was part of the city's massive downtown redevelopment project during the first decade of the 21st century. It opened to traffic in late 2005.

The circle replaced a more traditional downtown streetscape. Main Street was pretty much where it is now, except it sported two-way traffic, north and south. People who wanted to get to East Allen Street drove to a four way intersection and turned in front of the Winooski block.

Now, the western side of the circle, the former Main Street, is one-way southbound. People who want to head east on East Allen Street loop around the entire circle counter-clockwise to access East Allen.

There's also a traffic signal in the middle of the circle to help pedestrians cross directly across it. That's unusual in traffic circles.

Winooski City Engineer Steve Palmer said the hard look at the traffic circle is happening now because it's been there for half a decade, and people have become relatively accustomed to it. Also, downtown Winooski's redevelopment is nearly complete, so traffic patterns won't change substantially or rapidly in the next few years. That means if the traffic circle is redesigned, it's less likely to become outmoded anytime soon, Palmer said.

One more concern: Some motorists negotiating the circle say people have not mastered the art of driving through a traffic circle.

Palmer agreed. "People kind of dawdle."

Traffic and hazards

According to traffic planners, traffic moves more easily through Winooski than it did before the traffic circle. Intersections are rated as if in school from "A," in which delays at intersections with no traffic signals last 10 seconds or less, to "F" indicating delays at intersections lacking signals last 50 or more seconds.

The intersection of Main and East Allen streets, the main crossroads in Winooski before the traffic circle, was an "F." Now that the traffic circle is built, the approaches to the traffic circle are still "F" at times on Main Street north of the circle and on East and West Allen streets. But the rest of the circle ranges from A to C.

Moreover, the circle is unsafe, according to accident statistics. The Vermont Agency of Transportation ranks the Winooski traffic circle as the sixth highest crash location in the state.

There were 36 crashes in the circle last year, 33 in 2009 and 37 in 2008. Three pedestrians and two bicyclists have been hit by vehicles in the traffic circle, according to data from the draft report and from the Winooski Police Department.

Commuters know parts of the traffic circle aren't working well without consulting the planners' analysis of the downtown loop. A lot of people are resigned to it.

"This is normal," said Paul Lariviere of Winooski, while crawling along West Allen Street Monday morning. "I just accept it as part of the game, part of your day," he sighed.

Louise Chagnon, commuting from Colchester through the circle toward work in South Burlington Friday morning, said the slow traffic entering the circle from West Allen Street is a fact of life she can't avoid.

She said she tries to deal with it as best she can. "Timing is everything," she said, as she inched up West Allen Street at about 7:45 a.m. Friday. She said it's worse a little before 8 p.m. Indeed, by 7:55, the line of cars, which had been about 10 deep on West Allen, grew to 18 deep before diminishing as the clock rolled past 8 a.m.

Unknown cost figures

But how to fix the problems is the question. "I don't know what they could do, but they definitely could make some improvements to make it faster," Chagnon said.

The draft analysis for Winooski and the Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization have some ideas on how to fix some of the traffic congestion.

Though cost estimates aren't available yet, many of the adjustments wouldn't be expensive, Winooski City Engineer Steve Palmer said. It might involve shifting lane markings, changing the direction of some one-way streets, or adjusting where pedestrians can cross the circle.

Some options outlined in the draft report include:

• Reducing delays southbound from Main Street by moving farther southward the point at which traffic can merge into the circle.

• Reconfiguring curbs and sidewalks on some side streets leading into the circle, allowing trucks and other large vehicles to make turns more easily.

• Make West Center Street, on the west side of the circle at roughly its midway point, a two-way street instead of the current one-way configuration.

• Reverse the direction of one-way streets in neighborhoods off of the circle. For instance, reversing one-way traffic to eastbound instead of westbound on West Canal Street might sharply reduce lines of traffic backing up on West Allen Street.

Indeed, some people are already doing this. Friday morning, shortly before 8 a.m., a Winooski police officer was seen stopping a car that had driven east on West Canal Street toward the circle.

The study brought up other ideas, such as creating two traffic lanes, instead of one, for vehicles entering the circle from East Allen Street. One of the lanes would be designed to allow cars to turn northbound onto Main Street more easily. But the draft report indicated this might not help much and would do little to improve safety.

Palmer said none of the ideas are cast in stone. The next step is to hold some yet-to-be-scheduled public hearings to get more of a perspective from Winooski residents. From there, the city can create more firm plans for the traffic circle.

Since the traffic circle opened, three pedestrians have been hit by cars, and two of them were in crosswalks. The crosswalk on the southwest side of the circle is particularly hazardous, according to the report.

Crossing the circle is proving vexing for pedestrians. Catherine Bergeron-Radoux of Winooski paused Friday morning before she began crossing the circle near the bridge over the Winooski River.

Motorists are supposed to give pedestrians the right of way, but Bergeon-Radoux usually tries to make sure motorists are stopping before stepping off the curb. "It's hard to make eye contact," she said. "It's hard to see pedestrians."

Plus, southbound motorists tend to speed up at the pedestrian crossing as they get ready to exit the circle and cross the bridge into Burlington.

She said the crosswalks should be redesigned to make them more apparent to people in cars.

Another issue is a pedestrian crossing that bisects the circle. Pedestrians can trip the traffic signal, bringing cars to a halt in the middle of the circle. This can contribute to rush-hour backups.

"I've never seen a rotary with a stop light. It definitely defeats the purpose of it," said commuter Will Telford, 33, as he waited Monday morning.

Bergeron-Radoux said she, too is puzzled by the crossing in the middle of the circle.

"This is where people are going," she said, standing at the crosswalk on the southwest end of the circle. She said people use that crossing to get to a bus stop across the street from the Champlain Mill. And many pedestrians now walk to the Mill since it has become the headquarters for

One of the alternatives in the draft report is to eliminate the pedestrian crosswalks in the middle of the traffic circle and replace them with separate pedestrian crossings at the northeast and southwest ends of the circle.

Confused drivers

One issue with the Winooski traffic circle that's hard to fix with better lanes and signals is driver confusion, Palmer, the Winooski City engineer, said. "When we first opened it, people were not accustomed to roundabouts. It was confusing to people and there was a lot of hesitation," he said.

That contributed to traffic delays. And traffic models in use at the time did not do a great job of anticipating motorists deviating from what is considered normal driver behavior, Palmer said.

Now, computer models are better, so they are more apt to take into account driver behavior, he said.

Josh Schultz, a traffic design and safety project manager at the Vermont Agency of Transportation, agrees computer models are better. "It's got a lot of settings that can take into account irrational behavior," Schultz said.

Still, the models don't adequately account for extremely hesitant or reckless drivers, Shultz said.

Vermont drivers tend to be less aggressive than in other areas, and that might contribute to Winooski's congestion, said Telford, who said he once lived in a much larger city.

That said, Vermonters might want to get used to traffic circles and roundabouts.

On the state highway system alone, six roundabouts are open, one in Hyde Park is under construction, and no fewer than five more are being discussed, Shultz said.

For one commuter, the traffic circle will no longer be a problem. Telford said a shift in his work location means he won't go through Winooski anymore on the way to and from work. Smiling, he said, "This is my last day to go through the Winooski roundabout."

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