The Fayette County Board of Commissioners hosted a public forum Tuesday with representatives from the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) on the topic of roundabouts. There are two specific roundabout projects in the works for south Fayette County, but County Engineer Phil Mallon said that primary purpose of the meeting was to explain how roundabouts work and why the state has increasingly favored them for certain intersections. He described the meeting as a the equivalent of “Roundabout 101.”
“If we don’t walk out of this meeting all agreeing on the best course of action, I hope we can at least agree on what an appropriate starting point is,” Mallon said. “I talk to a lot of people, and hear comments, and there clearly is a lot of misinformation or misunderstanding about what a roundabout is, what are the advantages and disadvantages.”
The crowd attending Tuesday’s meeting was mostly older residents that doubted the effectiveness of roundabouts, in terms of safety and traffic flow, as well as their cost-effectiveness versus options like reducing the speed limit along Highway 92 or installing a traffic light at the intersections.
The specific projects in question, still in the concept stage, are at two intersections along Highway 92 South: one at Antioch Road, and the other at Seay Rd. These are exclusively GDOT projects, Mallon noted, though the county “has the opportunity” to provide input.
The two intersections are very nearby on Highway 92, leading to the assumption that they were being handled as one whole project. At Tuesday’s meeting, GDOT representatives said this was actually not the case. Scott Zehngraff, Assistant State Traffic Engineer, said GDOT was given some federal funding specifically to be used for “safety related” projects. He said both intersections had been identified “over a decade ago as higher priority intersections” in the county.
Zehngraff said that the federal money that would be used for the two intersections is specifically for “safety related” projects, and if it were not spent at these intersections it would be spent at others in the state.
Data provided from GDOT showed that 11 crashes occurred at these intersections from 2008 to 2012, with four of those being “angle collisions” in which one vehicle was struck in the side. One fatality occurred in that time frame at the Antioch intersection.
Mark Lenters, a consultant for GDOT and an expert on roundabouts, emphasized the value that roundabouts can essentially eliminate dangerous angle collisions as the design of the roundabout reduces vehicle speeds approaching the intersection and removes left turns across a lane of oncoming traffic.
Lenters said he turned his career to roundabout around 1999 because he saw the promise they offered, particularly in the reduction of fatal accidents.
“Without a doubt statistics tell us it’s the safest form of at-grade intersection,” Lenters said, pointing to what he said was 20 years of study confirming this fact.
He granted that residents tend to be resistant to the new driving style that roundabout necessitate, and that learning to use them properly can be a challenge that is helped by public education. He maintained, however, that the safety benefits are clear and undeniable and that traffic flows are also improved by roundabouts as opposed to traffic lights in most cases.
“The [Georgia] DOT, like many other DOTs, have developed policies that support roundabouts, and there’s support form the federal government,’ Lenters said, continuing that the evidence for their safety benefits are “so compelling that we can’t overlook it.”
County Commissioner Randy Ognio has been vocally opposed to roundabouts since his time on the commission and prior, when he frequently spoke at commission meetings. He and his wife, Denise, both voiced their disapproval of the concept on Tuesday.
“We’re heard how great the roundabouts are, we’ve heard it appears it’s going to happen whether we like it or not, but when do we hear the public’s side that we don’t want it?” Denise Ognio asked. “When the general public comes to these meetings and all the county commission shows is how great [roundabouts] are, there’s more to it than that, and I want to see that.”
Mallon responded that, at least on a level of safety, he was a fan of roundabouts and did not see the downside.
“The data, at least to DOT, shows that roundabouts are safer, they will save more lives than traffic signals,” Mallon said.
Lenters and Zehngraff echoed this sentiment at several points, saying that while a stoplight is an option it would not have as significant safety benefits at those intersections because it would not reduce the risk of right-angle collisions. Lenters also noted several times that the geometry of a roundabout causes approaching vehicles to reduce speeds by its physical design, whereas a stop light does not.
Zehngraff noted, also, that a traffic light had been considered for the intersection but would not be as good of an alternative as some attending the meeting thought it might. Zehngraff said, for one, that traffic lights would not confer enough safety benefits at either intersection to be worthy of the federal funding earmarked for “safety projects.” He also noted that a traffic light actually would likely cost moer than the roughly $5 to $6 million anticipated for the roundabouts.
Installing traffic lights would require more encroachment into right-of-way, Zehngraff said, in part because the roadways would have to be reconfigured so that the roads intersected at closer to right angles.
A representative from GDOT District 3, which includes Fayette County, agreed that a concept for traffic lights at the intersections was anticipated to cost more and cause a greater encroachment onto nearby properties. As they are conceived, GDOT has said the roundabout designs would only utilize existing right-of-way and not encroach on nearby property, which was a particular concern for St. Gabriel Catholic Church on the corner of Antioch and Highway 92.
Harp’s Crossing Baptist Church sits slightly further north along Highway 92 between Antioch and Harp Road, which feeds into Seay Road near its intersection with Highway 92.
Dennis Watson, the pastor at Harp’s Crossing, said he was initially “insanely resistant” to the roundabout concept and “didn’t want any part of it.” Since talking to GDOT representatives, he’d changed his tune.
“The night the DOT and county folks came and met with us, I heard some things that my stubborn mind needed to hear. If we spend $5 million to fix that and it saves my son’s life, it’s a good deal,” Watson said.
He agreed that the intersections near his church were very dangerous, largely because drivers tend to come very fast down Highway 92. The poor sight distances at each intersection make it difficult to see vehicles coming until they are fairly near. Watson said there had been several accidents from people leaving his church parking lot and he himself had many “near misses” due to this problem.
“That’s a dangerous place right there with Harp Road, Seay Road and Antioch Road. It is extremely dangerous, extremely,” Watson emphasized.
He said he credited GDOT representatives with educating him on how roundabouts could reduce the danger, particular for fatal wrecks.
“I appreciate what you’ve done, you’ve answered some questions for me. You helped me understand it’s at 90 degree angles that people get killed. It’s not in a 25 mile per hour roundabout.”
Despite his support, Watson did voice some concerns about how the design of the roundabouts could impact operations for the church, including access to the parking lots.
Engineer Jason Mobley said the intent of the design is to preserve existing driveways and maintain access levels for the nearby properties.
One resident said her house was directly across from the church and would be “the most heavily impacted,” by a roundabout. She said nobody had contacted her about this until five days before the meeting and indicated she had been largely in the dark as to how the change could impact her.
Mobley said the project is in its early phases and GDOT would not approach her about possible right of way acquisition for two years. The woman suggested that this would hurt or eliminate her ability to sell her home if she wanted to in the interim.
Mobley indicated the projects, if approved, would likely not begin construction until 2018 and could take up to two years to complete. A GDOT spokesperson said after the meeting that the project is still in a concept stage so timeframes are speculative at this point.