St. Francis residents not so sure about roundabouts

Many of the approximately 40 St. Francis residents who turned out for a Nov. 6 informational open house on a proposal to construct two roundabouts on the city’s Bridge Street aren’t convinced that the project is a good idea.

John Lushier, owner of St. Francis Foods on Bridge Street, questioned the necessity of the project. “Where is the data that suggests a high number of accidents in front of the school?” he asked. And, “Why don’t we just put in a four-way stop?”

Many of those who attended a Nov. 6 informational meeting weren’t ready to embrace a roundabout on Bridge Street in St. Francis. Photo by Karin Craig

Many of those who attended a Nov. 6 informational meeting weren’t ready to embrace a roundabout on Bridge Street in St. Francis. Photo by Karin Craig

Another resident pointed out that the traffic congestion in front of the school only lasts for an hour per day; is the project really necessary for that one hour? Bill Jones of St. Francis Barber Shop took that point further; he said he has timed just how long a traffic police officer assists with the congestion at the high school, and it’s actually only two minutes and 35 seconds.

Others raised concerns about the safety of roundabouts, how they affect response time for emergency vehicles, whether semi-trucks and buses can efficiently navigate them and how the roundabouts may affect access to businesses along Bridge Street.

The open house, held by the Anoka County Highway Department at St. Francis High School, featured detailed boards of information about the project itself and roundabouts in general, and included a verbal presentation by staff from the highway department and WSB & Associates, the engineering firm that is designing the project.

The proposal originated in 2011 when concerns about the safety of a half-mile segment of Bridge Street in front of St. Francis High School prompted Anoka County to apply for $1.35 million in federal funding to reconstruct that portion of the road and improve safety.

According to the county, the number of crashes has steadily increased over the years as a result of the multiple accesses to the road, lack of traffic control, lack of pedestrian facilities and large number of young drivers.

The proposed 2015 project would reconstruct Bridge Street (County State Aid Highway 24) from just east of Kerry Street through Poppy Street (County Road 27) and add a center median from just east of Kerry Street through the intersection with Poppy Street and Rum River Boulevard.

The existing signalized intersection at Poppy Street and Bridge Street would be replaced with a new roundabout, as would the intersection of Lake George Boulevard (County State Aid Highway 9) and Bridge Street.

The project would also realign the southern approach of Lake George Boulevard and add a city street on the north of Bridge Street to provide access to businesses and the high school. Kerry Street would be closed where it currently connects to Bridge Street and instead be connected to the new street.

Project engineers say the project will improve safety for motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists; provide better traffic circulation, especially during peak periods; and improve roadway structure to better support heavy vehicles since Bridge Street is an important Rum river crossing.

“We know there are lots of concerns and we don’t take that lightly,” said Curt Kobilarcsik of the Anoka County Highway Department.

He said the purpose of the open house was to learn about those concerns so they can potentially be addressed as the project design is tweaked and finalized.

WSB & Associates Consultant Designer Andy Plowman showed a brief clip from the movie “European Vacation,” in which Chevy Chase and his family end up caught in a traffic circle and, unable to exit, end up spinning though it the entire night. “That is not what we’re proposing here,” he said.

Roundabouts are different from European traffic circles and from the much larger traffic rotaries that exist in New England states.

According to Plowman, roundabouts are circular intersections in which the circulating vehicles have the right of way.

Traffic moves through the intersection counterclockwise and cars enter the intersection when there is a gap that allows them to do so, Plowman said.

He said that roundabouts have fewer crashes and less severe crashes than do other intersections, since they virtually eliminate high-speed, right-angle, and head-on crashes.

Roundabouts have only eight conflict points in comparison to the 32 conflict points of signalized and stop-sign intersections, Plowman said.

By nature roundabouts also have slower traffic speeds, giving drivers more time to react, he said.

Pedestrian safety is also improved in roundabout intersections, since pedestrians need only look one way at a time, there is a refuge island, the crossings are shorter and the number of pedestrian conflicts is eight rather than the 16 of other intersections., according to Plowman.

Another advantage cited for roundabouts over four-way stops is that a four-way stop requires every car to stop and wait, backing up traffic further, while roundabouts keep traffic flowing, Plowman said.

The total cost of the project is estimated at about $2.5 million, said Kobilarcsik, with $1.35 million of that federally funded.

Anoka Count and the city of St. Francis would cover the rest of the cost, although exactly how much would be covered by each is not yet clear.

“Is this a done deal?” asked St. Francis resident Matt Poindexter.

According to Kobilarcsik, the county does still need the city’s consent to move forward, so it’s not necessarily a done deal.

“But we hope to work with the city and include tweaks based on what’s heard here tonight,” Kobilarcsik said.

“What if we go to the city of St. Francis with a petition saying we’re not interested?” Poindexter asked. “What would happen if you don’t reach an agreement with the city?”

Kobilarcsik said the county could work with the city on other options [to improve Bridge Street], but the $1.35 million in federal funding is specifically for the project as proposed.

There are already 119 roundabouts in the state of Minnesota and most metro-area counties already have them.

The two proposed in this project will be the first in Anoka County, but Kobilarcsik said there are more planned for the cities of Columbus and Blaine.

Additional open-house meetings on the project are planned in the future. Meanwhile, questions and comments about the project can be emailed to jason.orcutt@co.anoka.mn.us.

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