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Traffic roundabouts can get some in Sonoma County wound up

Published: Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 5:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 8, 2013 at 7:05 a.m.

In engineering parlance, roundabouts "calm traffic." The term has a loose, devil-may-care ring to it, unlike "stoplight," which sounds authoritarian, even rude.

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Vehicles navigate the roundabout on Petaluma Boulevard South, looking north at Crystal Lane, in Petaluma, on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013.

(Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Sonoma County would seem a logical fit for roundabouts, which are touted as safer, cheaper and more environmentally friendly than your standard-issue intersection governed by a stoplight or sign.

And yet, few issues spark more controversy around these parts than roundabouts, with Cotati voters going so far as to ban them last November, likely making the city the first in the nation -- maybe even the world -- to take that extraordinary step.

"I'm sad to say that's true to the best of my knowledge," said Cotati Mayor Mark Landman, who opposed the ballot measure that led to the ban.

Undeterred, traffic planners in other Sonoma County cities and at the county level are pressing forward with plans to install roundabouts at several key intersections.

That includes, in unincorporated areas, at Highway 116 at Mirabel Road in Forestville and at Arnold Drive at Agua Caliente Road at the entrance to the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma. A roundabout also is being considered for the three-way intersection of Highways 116 and 121/12 in Carneros, south of Sonoma.

Tom O'Kane, interim co-director of the county's Transportation and Public Works Department, called Cotati's ban on roundabouts "really foolish" and "extremely short-sighted."

He said he has never heard arguments against roundabouts that "make any sense."

Nevertheless, there are many in the county and around the nation who view roundabouts with suspicion, as if they were a plot to import European driving habits and force Americans to trade their Fords for Fiats.

The modern roundabout usually features a one-lane traffic circle in which vehicles move counterclockwise around a center circular island, entering and exiting to the right. The motorist entering the roundabout usually must yield to traffic already circling.

They are not to be confused with the smaller traffic circles that Santa Rosa installed, and then tore out, on Humboldt Street and on a street in O'Kane's northeast neighborhood.

He called those circles "dangerous" and said he was surprised "someone didn't get killed."

He said the county's roundabouts differ in that they are proposed to be about 100 feet wider than what he called a "dinky" traffic circle. He said this will give motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians much more room to navigate the structure.

"Even Caltrans, which is not the most innovative group I've come across, has roundabouts, and they work very well," he said.

Dan St. John, Petaluma's public works and utilities director, said the biggest obstacle to Americans embracing the concept is the fact that it's something new and different.

"We're human. We resist change," he said.

St. John said he's not heard any complaints about Petaluma's roundabouts. But that doesn't mean everyone there is pleased with them.

From his home overlooking a roundabout on Petaluma Boulevard South, UPS worker Ken Jamison this week described hearing often the screech of tires, cussing and other auditory evidence of road rage.

With its proximity to Highway 101, the roundabout is more heavily traveled during commute hours.

"There will be accidents," Jamison predicted. "It's only a matter of time."

It was apparent after only a few minutes observing traffic flow through the roundabout that not all motorists felt comfortable with the design.

One man driving a Subaru hatchback stopped in the circle to yield to another driver coming in even though he had the right of way. Several motorists stopped at the entrance to the roundabout without needing to, forcing drivers behind them to brake abruptly to avoid a fender bender.

Despite sometimes having to wait five minutes to enter the roundabout in the morning, Carmen Cremidis, who lives in the neighborhood, said she likes the traffic feature.

"I like that it slows down traffic," she said.

St. John pointed out that intersections with stoplights or signs also inspire "honking and swearing."

More important to him and other planners is that roundabouts have been shown to reduce the number of serious accidents involving both motorists and pedestrians.

Landman, who researched the issue while opposing Measure U in Cotati, said intersections with a roundabout have a 90 percent lower fatality rate than those that have stoplights.

"I'm not surprised the county is planning to move forward with roundabouts," he said.

Greg Karraker, who helped lead the campaign in support of Cotati's ban, said the opposition was not about roundabouts per se but about where they were being proposed.

"The best side effect of Measure U was that it put the stake in the heart of the downtown specific plan," he said.

Still, Karraker acknowledged misgivings about the ban applying citywide.

"I would have made it (the ban) specific to that location," he said.

The city is now scrambling to design a smaller project to achieve some of the same goals of making the downtown a more inviting area for residents, businesses and shoppers and to keep a $1.1 million Metropolitan Transportation Commission grant that was to help pay for the Village Main Street plan.

In the meantime, the county is expecting to seek bids this spring to begin construction on roundabouts at Highway 116 in Forestville and on Arnold Drive in Sonoma, O'Kane said.

Cost estimates for the Forestville project are $6.5 million, which O'Kane said would be about $500,000 less than installing a stoplight. The cost of the Arnold Drive roundabout is pegged at about $1.8 million, he said.

The roundabouts will be partially funded by Measure M, a quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2004. The tax money also is being used to study the possible implementation of the proposed Carneros roundabout.

Nowhere in the original ballot measure does the word "roundabout" appear. Rather, voters were told improvements planned at Arnold Drive and at the Carneros intersections would include installation of "traffic signals."

Asked if that's tantamount to a bait-and-switch now that the county is potentially pursuing roundabouts for those sites, O'Kane said, "No."

"Things change over time," he said. "It's not like we're going to spend the money on Petaluma Hill Road when it was supposed to be spent on Arnold Drive. I think we're being true to what's being intended."

But Karraker expressed unhappiness when he was told his tax dollars will be spent on roundabouts, which he and others fought so hard against in Cotati.

"Europeans are used to them. But they don't seem to quite fit the landscape here," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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