— Dale Heffelfinger, Whitehall Township
A: Most of the long-awaited Marshalls Creek Bypass in Monroe County opened to traffic June 11, a few days after PennDOT officials held an engine-starting news conference there to publicize the new road.
Constructed in Smithfield Township about four miles northeast of East Stroudsburg and busy Interstate 80, the bypass links Routes 209 and 402, detouring the village of Marshalls Creek and untangling the chronic traffic jams that had plagued the village and vicinity, particularly on summer weekends when the enticing Poconos recreational attractions fueled extremely heavy traffic volume.
Though the bypass has yet to open fully, I visited recently to get a first-gear sense of how traffic is moving, particularly at the controversial roundabout — a design despised by many motorists, but being forced down our throttle plates by highway engineers in Pennsylvania and other states.
Proponents contend that today's roundabouts, for which traffic entering the circular road yields to traffic already within it, are safer and otherwise superior to traffic circles, which generally give entering traffic the right-of-way. The labels attached to these circular alternatives to signalized intersections, and the access rules that apply to them, sometimes vary, but that's a basic description.
Transportation experts seem to be saying of the new roundabouts, "Give them a chance, you'll like them, at least once you get used to them." We'll see; roundabouts are planned for the intersections of Routes 222 and 662, and Route 222 and Tamarack Boulevard, both west of Kutztown, and Lehigh Valley roundabouts are likely to be coming our way as we get further down the road.
PennDOT consulting project engineer Mike Mastaglio, working on the Marshalls Creek project, said roundabouts are not appropriate as replacements for every intersection: "There are some valid pros and cons," regarding the design, he said. But if conditions are right — among them traffic volume, topography, public right-of-way availability, the presence of pedestrians and bicyclists — properly designed roundabouts are safer than signalized intersections, he said, and proponents contend they can be at least as efficient at moving traffic along.
The Federal Highway Administration advises that the maximum service volume for single-lane roundabouts ranges from 20,000 to 26,000 vehicles per day, "depending on the left-turn percentages and the distribution of traffic between the major and minor roads." Two-lane roundabouts can handle 40,000 to 50,000 vehicles per day, the FHWA says.
Perhaps the biggest safety advantage offered by roundabouts is the effective control of traffic speed, simply because it's difficult to drive too fast within these relatively tight circles. The laws of physics work against high speed on a curve. In addition, motorists are almost forced to be looking for which leg of the roundabout they'll use to exit, and to position themselves properly to do so.
"People become more perceptive and more aware," in roundabouts, Mastaglio said. "At a red light, you can 'zone out.' People are actually more observant, [they're] paying more attention" at roundabouts because of the navigational demands.
The Marshalls Creek roundabout is posted with a 25 mph advisory (not regulatory) sign.
Because of the low speed and the fact that everyone's traveling in the same direction, accidents in roundabouts tend to be fender-benders or side-scrapers, PennDOT spokesman Ron Young said. At signalized intersections, traffic flows in straight lines in opposing directions, jacking up the risk of head-on, glancing and "T-bone" crashes. The lure of speeding up to "beat" red lights combined with growing frustration during seemingly long waits for green lights can make for a deadly mix.
One might suspect that the laggardly speed in roundabouts hurts traffic-flow efficiency, but at the same time, traffic rarely if ever stops for lengthy periods, in any direction. At intersections, half the traffic is stopped at any given time. Excessive traffic loads can overwhelm intersections or roundabouts; there's no perfect design.
The only speed-bump for properly located roundabouts, Mastaglio and Young contend, is public perception. Generally, Mastaglio said, people are put off by bad experiences they've had at busy, confusing traffic circles with which they're unfamiliar, and where entering traffic simply rolls into the circle at will.
I'm pretty much in that category. But I'm willing to give the roundabout design a sporting chance. Traffic was moving freely through the southern end of the Marshalls Creek roundabout on a recent Sunday afternoon, even with some of the entry lanes still closed by pylons. Time will tell, but the early indication from my one brief visit seems encouraging.
In addition to one- and two-lane roundabouts, Marshalls Creek is a hybrid — a three-point roundabout with one leg getting two lanes and the other two getting one. I didn't even notice this when I drove through the roundabout in all directions — a reaction Mastaglio viewed as an endorsement of a design intended to be intuitive and seamless for motorists.
I guess at the end of the road I'm warily accepting of these things. If most people take the time to learn the rules and abide by them, roundabouts should be very effective. Of course, that can be said of just about any traffic design. Prominent "yield" and other traffic signs, as well as street-name and route-number signs, are imperative at roundabouts, as I discovered on a recent trip to West Reading, where a poorly marked seven-point Reading Avenue roundabout sent me in the wrong direction in unfamiliar territory. The Marshalls Creek roundabout, with only three access points, seems well marked.
For a quick return trip covering the long, pothole-plagued history of the Marshalls Creek Bypass, the road first was planned in 1987, and initial designs included variations on a four-lane highway with sticker prices as high as $200 million — and that was part of the problem.
In April 2008, with the U.S. economy speeding straight downhill and the cost of asphalt and other construction materials going the opposite way, PennDOT slammed the brakes on the four-lane design and "re-sized" the project to save money. The resulting two-lane bypass is expected to set us back by $38.7 million when all the ancillary work is done, either late this year or by spring 2013.
Road Warrior appears Mondays and Fridays, and the Warrior blogs at mcall.com. Email questions about roadways, traffic and transportation, with your name and the municipality where you live, to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Road Warrior, Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260.