Eight proposed roundabouts in the Roanoke and New River valleys may change the way you get around.

JUSTIN COOK The Roanoke Times

The roundabout on Virginia Tech's campus has helped traffic and hasn't seen any significant accidents, a spokesman for the school said.


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Some neighborhoods in Roanoke, Roanoke County and Blacksburg could soon become home to intersections governed not by stop signs or traffic lights but by concrete circles and yield signs.

That's because transportation engineers have proposed building at least eight traffic roundabouts in the region within the next five years.

Engineers and many residents hope this type of junction, where traffic flows in a circle around an island at about 15 to 25 miles per hour, will calm traffic and reduce vehicle collisions. Others fear they may create new problems.

"This is just a good way to handle traffic and provide a safe intersection," said Mark Jamison, Roanoke's traffic engineer.

Though a relative novelty in the Roanoke and New River valleys, roundabouts in recent years have become popular in other states -- including Maryland, Nevada and North Carolina -- and many European countries.

This month, when the Virginia Department of Transportation publishes a revision of its road design manual, roundabouts will become the department's preferred alternative to intersections, according to Walter Pribble, senior transportation manager for VDOT. Since 1997, more than 40 roundabouts have been constructed in the state.

The eight roundabouts proposed include one in Roanoke at Bennington Street and Riverland Road; two more are being considered for 13th Street's intersections with Tazewell and Wise avenues.

In Roanoke County, plans are in the works to place one at the intersection of Penn Forest Boulevard and Colonial Avenue and another at Merriman and Meadowlark roads.

The proposals in Blacksburg are for two roundabouts where Givens Lane intersects with Progress Street and with Aden Lane, and one at the intersection of Main Street and Prices Fork Road.

A roundabout usually costs between $400,000 and $1.2 million to build, Pribble said. The question of who picks up the tab depends on where it is built.

A roundabout on secondary routes is paid for by the locality with funds allocated by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, VDOT spokeswoman Heidi Coy said. If it's on a primary route or an interstate route, then the funding comes from VDOT's construction budget.

It can take years to get from planning to paving. Roundabout projects need enough funding to move through about a six-year planning process, according to VDOT spokesman Jason Bond.

The proposal for the 13th Street roundabouts, for example, was first introduced at a public information meeting in May 2006 -- and has a public hearing scheduled for late this year or early 2009. After that, VDOT will still have to buy the necessary land and start construction.

At a recent information meeting regarding the proposed roundabout at Bennington Street, neighbors were vocal about the need to curb traffic tie-ups that occur weekday mornings and late afternoons near the IGA grocery store.

"It's been a nightmare for years," said Janet Corcoran, who lives nearby. She thinks anything would be better than the current traffic situation, but she worried that closing one of the entrances to the IGA, as dictated by the plan, would cause drivers additional inconvenience.

In Roanoke County, Marcia Weis, who lives on Colonial Avenue, shares with two other homes a driveway that exits directly into the street's busy T-intersection with Penn Forest Boulevard.

"It's terrible," Weis said. "In the mornings, you just take your life into your own hands."

Safety is the benefit of roundabouts that proponents cite most often. A 2001 study of 23 intersections by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported that converting from traffic signals or stop signs to roundabouts reduced injury crashes by 80 percent and overall crashes by 40 percent.

Opponents of roundabouts also cite safety. Alice Kemp a Roanoke solid waste truck driver, said she crosses the 13th Street-Tazewell Avenue intersection four times a day, and she doesn't expect a round junction to improve traffic flow.

"They're crazy," she said about the city's engineers and the proposal. "I think there are going to be a bunch of accidents because people drive really fast through here."

In 2002, Blacksburg's first experience with a circular intersection ended quickly. The town spent $500 to introduce a traffic circle, which is similar to a roundabout but larger and with a higher speed limit, to slow traffic at Draper Road and Clay Street. About 100 people complained to the administration and it was removed within two months.

"People were really, really confused," said Bill Brown, the town's police chief at the time.

Four years after Blacksburg's failed traffic circle, and just a few blocks southwest of that intersection, Virginia Tech installed a roundabout to connect West Campus Drive with Washington Street. That intersection had been regulated by a stop sign.

"Washington Street had continuous traffic, and traffic was being backed up on West Campus Drive all the way down to the Drillfield at peak traffic times, because drivers had to wait for a break in traffic," said Mark Owczarski, the school's director of news and information.

The roundabout got rid of the backup yet allowed traffic to continue to flow, he said.

Owczarski said he was not aware of any significant accidents that have occurred since the roundabout was added. Safety, he said, was a primary concern because there are many pedestrian-marked crosswalks near that intersection.

Citing a statistic from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Pribble said people are usually against roundabouts 2-to-1 before construction, but that they tend to favor them 3-to-1 after construction.

"I think people were worried about it before it happened, and then once it was there, they kind of realized how easy it was," Owczarski said. "People don't even give it a second thought anymore."

On the Web: www.vdot.virginia.gov/info/faq-roundabouts.asp