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FORT COLLINS The city is preparing to build a traffic roundabout that will handle the biggest vehicle volume of any in the state and will have the largest capacity of any in the nation.
If opinions hold true, the Fort Collins roundabout will be either a progressive, safe and efficient traffic handling device or a risky project that worsens congestion and makes drivers’ heads spin.
The two lane roundabout will replace traditional traffic signals at the intersection of Lemay Avenue and Colorado 14, a gateway on the city’s northeast side.
About 47,000 vehicles a day are expected to travel through the roundabout when it opens this summer; about 75,000 vehicles a day will motor through when the roundabout is enlarged to three lanes in the future.
The city will begin accepting bids for the project this week. Construction is scheduled to start in April.
The project is notable, and has piqued the interest of traffic specialists around the country, for several reasons: It will handle a large traffic volume, will be on a state highway, and must manage cars and tractor trailers side by side.
The prospect of navigating the unfamiliar roundabout alongside big rigs makes many drivers nervous. Others think confusion will reign because highway drivers, often just passing through, will not understand the roundabout.
“What the city has done is the equivalent of taking a 6 year old up to the high dive and saying, ‘You’re going to learn to dive and swim at the same time.’ It’s that drastic,” said Greg Snyder, a city council candidate and frequent critic of local policies.
He added, “Taxpayers will get whacked if it doesn’t work.” Traffic specialists in Fort Collins and elsewhere acknowledged that motorists face a learning curve with roundabouts.
But after adjusting, many drivers find that roundabouts move traffic smoothly and more quickly compared with traffic lights, officials said.
“Everywhere roundabouts have been put, the accidents go down, the emissions go down, the waits go down, and people like them once they get used to them,” said Eric Bracke, Fort Collins traffic engineer. “People scream about it because it’s new and unknown, but they can do it.” A new shopping center featuring a Wal Mart Supercenter was a catalyst for the Fort Collins roundabout. Called Mulberry Lemay Crossings, the center will open this fall and is expected to spawn more traffic at the busy intersection.
City officials opted to upgrade the intersection with a roundabout because they believe the device is the most cost effective way to decrease current congestion and to manage projected traffic increases.
Planners also think the roundabout will reduce air pollution from automobile emissions and will improve intersection safety.
Roundabouts require that drivers slow, turn and yield. That decreases accidents, and when accidents do occur they cause fewer injuries,
That’s because cars in roundabout accidents typically are sideswiped at slow speeds instead of being hit broadside at higher speeds, he said.
Cost of the project will be about $3.5 million, about a third the cost of building a larger intersection with traffic lights, Bracke said.
The cost will be covered with $1.2 million from the Mulberry Lemay Crossings developer, a $1.12 million federal grant administered by the Colorado Department of Transportation and $1.2 million from the city of Fort Collins.
The roundabout will open with two lanes entering and exiting. Eventually, medians and other design elements will be modified to make the roundabout a three lane device, allowing it to function for up to 35 years, Bracke said.
The Colorado Department of Transportation approved the roundabout in August after earlier rejecting the project. Officials had feared its size would create problems, said Rick Gabel, a state program engineer.
State officials suggested that the city open the roundabout with two lanes instead of three, and urged additional signs to direct drivers.
The state also demanded that the city reconstruct the intersection with traditional signals if delays and accident rates climb over current levels. State officials will begin evaluating the roundabout’s effectiveness one year after it opens.
“We’ve put the risk back on the city of Fort Collins. If we have problems, they’ll have to come back and fix it,”
The Colorado Motor Carriers Association, a truckers’ organization, also signed off on the project after truck drivers tested several mock roundabouts.
The truckers helped city planners design lanes that would accommodate even the longest tractor trailers without hindering adjacent cars, said Greg Fulton, association president.
Fulton said he is confident of the roundabout’s safety. But he is not convinced it will relieve congestion.
Emergency officials said the roundabout is not expected to delay police cars, ambulances or fire trucks.
Roundabouts have been a staple at intersections in Europe. They are relatively new and increasingly used in the United States. In Colorado, roundabouts are in place in Frisco, Vail, Avon, Aspen, Grand Junction, Golden and Loveland, among other cities.
Since 1995, the town of Vail has built four roundabouts at Interstate 70 interchanges. The largest is a two lane roundabout that handles about 40,000 vehicles a day and simultaneously manages cars, semi trucks and buses, much as the Fort Collins roundabout will do.