Monday, August 3, 2020

Council lacks enthusiasm for roundabout at town entrance

Are they pedestrian-friendly?

By Mark Reaman

The idea of a roundabout at the entrance to town at the Highway 135 and Red Lady Avenue intersection appeared to get a lukewarm reception at best from most of the Crested Butte council and some local citizens during a work session held on January 22.

Town staff has been pursuing Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) grant funds to help pay for the roundabout as a major upgrade to the town’s first main intersection, which gets extremely busy when people drop off and pick up their kids from school. It is also busy during peak summer months. One part of the upgrade would be to construct a new access lane into the school parking lot from the highway for cars coming down the hill into town.

The idea is to obtain a $1.2 million grant from the state in its 2022-2024 funding cycle to go with $900,000 of town street and alley funds to build the project. Town staff has been advocating for the state funds with the knowledge that the grant cycle will be competitive. Having a “shovel ready project” designed and ready to go would improve their chances at the money. Total cost to upgrade the intersection with a roundabout would be about $2.1 million. Upgrading with a traditional street widening to include turn lanes would be $1.5 million. The new access lane from the highway to the parking lot is estimated to cost about $400,000.

Town community development director Michael Yerman gave the Town Council some history of the idea at the January 22 work session. He said the roundabout was part of the 2014 transportation plan that prioritized that intersection as a main concern.

Traffic consultants Joel Price and Greg Schroeder relayed to the council that CDOT had reviewed several options to best improve the intersection and preferred adding some turning lanes and realigning the standard intersection or installing the roundabout.

The consultants advocated and preferred the roundabout option, given the likelihood traffic will get worse and certain turning issues, such as turning left to go south on Highway 135 from Red Lady, would only get more difficult as the community grows. They described that particular turn as being at “a level service of E,” which means long average waits of between 35 and 50 seconds per vehicle. “It will only get worse with growth,” said Schroeder.

Schroeder said roundabouts bring increased safety and a reduction in crashes, with lower travel speeds. It could also provide a gateway piece to the entrance to town. “Pedestrian and bike safety are paramount for this community and roundabouts address that,” he said. “The cons are that they have higher capital costs to construct and are unfamiliar to some of the public.”

Yerman said the Crested Butte $900,000 portion of the cost would be raised through the town street and alley mill levy. Currently set at eight mills, it raises about $698,000 annually. Some of that money, about $78,000 per year, is currently being set aside for the intersection improvement project. A half mill increase in the property tax would bring in more money and cost residential units worth $800,000 about $32 more per year. A business property worth $800,000 would cost about $116 extra.

Yerman said CDOT has indicated it will include the design and planning costs (about $250,000) from the town as part of the matching funds for the overall project. If the town finishes the design and includes the additional turn lane into the school from the highway and pays about an additional $400,000 for that lane, CDOT would probably include those costs as part of the match. That lane would not be cheap, given the topography and the cost to build a retaining wall.

“Our hope is that by putting in the new school lane entrance in 2019, it could delay the need for a roundabout or major intersection upgrades for a few more years,” said Yerman.

Mayor Jim Schmidt, a professional bus driver, said in his opinion the new lane could make matters worse at the Red Lady intersection. He said vehicles now turning right from the highway act as a sort of buffer to slow down traffic and let those trying to turn left from Red Lady make a move. By peeling off the traffic and turning into the school earlier, the remaining vehicles will all likely be heading through town and that could stall the left-turning vehicles longer.

“You might be right but that’s where the traffic-calming of a roundabout comes in,” replied Schroeder.

Town public works director Rodney Due said he comes into town in the mornings and feels the new lane would make it a cleaner driving situation and not add to the congestion.

Councilman Chris Haver said the new turn lane would be beneficial. “It takes out some of the guesswork for cars trying to make the turn,” he said. “I worry about snowplowing with a roundabout and would like to see yellow blinking lights indicating a school zone. I question the roundabout and am worried that heavy traffic in the summer would be backed up a lot because of the stop sign at Belleview.”

“The Belleview stop sign probably goes away,” said Yerman. “It would be replaced with a push-button pedestrian light. They would probably be installed throughout that whole corridor.” Such a flashing pedestrian light has been installed at the curve heading into Mt. Crested Butte.

“Do we then need another roundabout at Elk Avenue?” asked Haver.

“Yes. The original design in 2014 included that but the funding would come entirely from town for that one,” said Yerman. “That’s not an immediate priority but it is something to consider down the line, maybe in 2030 at the earliest.”

“I can’t imagine taking the stop sign out at Belleview,” said Schmidt. “I would guess that all the drivers leaving Clark’s parking lot would then go left to Fifth Street then over to Elk to go north on Sixth.”

“That’s where people cross Sixth because at least there’s a stop sign there,” said councilman Jackson Petito.

“I have heartburn with improving the intersection to a standard intersection,” said Yerman. “That basically widens the street, which increases speeds and that is not what this town is about.”

“I support the roundabout and staying involved with CDOT to get the grant,” said councilwoman Laura Mitchell. “The time has come. I’ve always wanted the kids walking down Eighth Street.”

Yerman said there have been staff discussions on how to direct pedestrian kids to avoid that area altogether and to use alternate routes to school, by putting in sidewalks along Belleview Avenue to Eighth Street, but such action also takes away parking spaces.

Glo Cunningham said that being a pedestrian town, a roundabout is a strange fit. “Roundabouts are not pedestrian-friendly,” she said. “It is just fine for drivers to wait 50 seconds or a minute to make a turn. The cost of the roundabout is absolutely ridiculous. Aside from Laura, all the people I talk to in town don’t want a roundabout but it feels like the staff really wants it.”

“We should be talking about safety first and foremost,” said longtime citizen Dan Jones. “I don’t care about traffic rates.”

“It does sound like the new council people are getting a real sales job on this,” said John Hess. “To me, entering a town that is designed as a grid through a roundabout doesn’t make any sense at all. I don’t support this at all. Waiting a minute to turn isn’t bad. Maybe that will get some parents to put their kids on the school bus instead of driving them to school.”

Nearly everyone in the discussion appeared to be in favor of putting in a new turn lane from the highway into the school parking lot. Staff would like to keep its options open with CDOT and so are hoping for some definitive council direction on whether to proceed with a comprehensive design at a future council meeting. They would like a decision before the next step in the state grant process this October.

The roundabout discussion is scheduled to continue at the next council meeting on February 5.

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