By Diane Weber
The number of vehicles using the road has been steadily rising – along with the number of trucks. Our country road is starting to look like it just isn’t up to the task of carrying all that traffic.
The fact is, many residents feel that their road presents hazards, real or unreal.
At the Dec. 9 Board of Supervisors meeting, Keswick resident Tony Vanderwarker told supervisors that “everybody who lives on that road has had one near death experience at least.” And while this somewhat hyperbolic statement may not be borne out by statistics (VDOT has shown that Rt. 22/231 has no more accidents than any other comparable state road), nervous drivers—such as this writer—cannot fail to notice that the wheels of these oncoming behemoths are only a few inches away from the center line. The country lanes are a tight fit for tractor trailers – or Greyhound Buses, for that matter.
Another point that has often been made: The road’s shoulders are not sufficient to create a wide enough comfort zone between a driver and oncoming traffic. There are sharp drop offs at the shoulders in places. And to strike more fear into the hearts of timorous drivers, there are the occasional wheel tracks leading off the pavement and on to the soft ground just beyond the shoulder. Some of us are thinking: That could be me.
A Recap of Events
In 2005 VDOT listed Rt. 22/231 in its long-range plans as a candidate for four-laning. The plan was dropped, but in the meantime, the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), a non-profit, membership organization operating out of Warrenton, came up with an alternative plan for Rt. 22/231. The plan was modeled after the Rt. 50 corridor in Loudon and Fauquier counties, which received funding as a Federal Demonstration Project.
The goal was “traffic calming,” which basically means using obstacles such as speed bumps and roundabouts to encourage drivers to slow down. Not a bad thing on the face of it.
Mr. Vanderwarker, former PEC Chair and Board member, raised $40,000 to hire a traffic engineer to redesign Rt. 22/231 with “traffic calming” in mind. The work-in-progress was shown to County planning staff, then submitted to the Planning Commission with the request that the document be inserted in the County’s updated Five-Year Comprehensive Plans.
The project went under the heading of “Rural Traffic Calming” in the Reference material of the County’s Transportation section. It featured seven roundabouts located at Keswick Road, Clark’s Tract, Louisa Road, Cismont Lane, Turkey Sag, Lindsay Road, and Klockner Road. Bridges were to be built over streams with a slightly raised pavement; pull-offs were to be added, trees planted to block the views, and the road’s surface roughened to make traveling a bit noisier. The aesthetics mimicked the touristy sites along the “Journey Through Hallowed Ground” scenic byway that winds its way up to Gettysburg. Estates owners would be encouraged to make their driveway entrances more monumentally visible. And to complete the picture, gates would be put up at both ends of the road announcing the historic presence of the Southwest Mountain District.
In April of 2010, the PEC invited its Keswick members to two meetings held at Grace Episcopal Church. According to the PEC, 80 people attended, and from this group in attendance, the PEC derived “community support” for its plan.
Local residents, most of whom had not been invited to the PEC meetings, got wind of the plans and showed up in droves at Rivanna Supervisor Ken Boyd’s March 29, 2014, Town Hall meeting at Grace Episcopal Church. This gathering of local residents – a wider sampling of the Keswick community – expressed outrage at the PEC plan. By December the plan had disappeared from the “Rural Traffic Calming” section of the County’s Plans and replaced with the comment: “Given the amount of concern and consternation from the community… staff believes that using an Albemarle County example is not the best option” for the PEC’s roundabout plan.
The plan continued to draw controversy, however. At the Dec. 9 Board of Supervisors meeting, when the Rural Traffic Calming Secondary Rural Road section of the County’s plans was under discussion, residents and landowners testified on both sides of the issue.
Petie Craddock, whose family owns land in Cismont, concurred “with staff’s recommendation to eliminate any reference to Albemarle County and Rt. 22/231 as an example of traffic calming … from [not only] the reference section but also from the appendix of the Comprehensive Plan.” As a former Planning Commissioner and interim county supervisor, Mr. Craddock observed that “items that linger [in the comprehensive plans] tend to become benchmarks for action when up for review.”
More importantly he added that “not only would Albemarle fire, rescue and police have longer response times, but EMS vehicles from Orange, Louisa and the State Police accessing the ER at Martha Jefferson Hospital would experience these increases also.” Mr. Craddock is past president of the East Rivanna Volunteer Fire Department and Board member since 1986.
Jeff Werner, the PEC’s local field officer, expressed his disappointment that the planning staff had “recommended removing the Rt. 22/231 plan from documents . . . [and that it would] be tossed out for some hysteria over traffic circles that will never happen.” “The community made it clear,” he said, “that they preferred simple solutions” to the traffic issue. When questioned later by supervisors, he expressed his frustration at the focus on roundabouts, dismissing their importance in the overall plan.
Mr. Vanderwarker told supervisors that he had “personally raised $40,000 from people up and down 231″ to have the PEC’s traffic study done. He added: “A few of the people who wrote checks were major donors to our supervisors’ last campaign so I am baffled why supporting a group of misinformed people who I don’t think even live on 231[sic] . . . these people have a keep-your-hands-off-my-Medicare kind of misconstrued point of view.” He made valid points about the truck traffic, the “drop offs” on the road sides, and his efforts to get the speed level reduced.
Elizabeth Hupert, who lives on Rt. 231, spoke against the plan which would put the noise, pollution and lighting of a roundabout at her intersection.
Two other residents spoke in opposition to the plan, adding to the argument the longer times spent commuting, and for children, travel times on school buses.
While acknowledging that the plan was largely opposed by Keswick residents, and that placing a reference to a specific location in County plans was “unprecedented,” supervisors agreed to let planners extract the “concepts” from the plan as a general guideline for all of the County’s rural roads.
Immediately following this meeting was a local media blitz praising roundabouts as the wonder cure for all traffic woes. More on that later.
Although downplayed by Mr. Werner, roundabouts are central to the traffic calming goals of the PEC’s plans. No roundabouts, no traffic calming.
Common in Europe since the 1960s, roundabouts are a growing trend in this country and are promoted with much enthusiasm by planners and the popular media.
First off, there is a distinction between traffic circles and the roundabouts in the PEC plan. Traffic circles, which replace lighted signals, are multi-laned, larger in diameter (150 to 300 feet), carry larger traffic loads (up to 45,000 daily), and allow entry speeds of 25-30mph.
New Jersey was the first state to build traffic circles back in the 1920s, and had 67 of them in the 1970s. Today, there are 24, most having been replaced with either traffic lights, others with grade-separated interchanges. Traffic volumes simply outgrew the capacity of the state’s traffic circles, and as the accident rates piled up, New Jersey started removing them. “For many years they worked beautifully,” said a spokesman for the state’s Department of Transportation 25 years ago. “There have been problems over the last ten years. At rush hour, they don’t work at all.”
Roundabouts, on the other hand, are typically single-laned, 90 to 180 feet in diamter, and carry 25,000 vehicles daily with entry speeds of 20-25mph.
“Mini-roundabouts,” which are primarily used for traffic calming, are 45 to 90 feet in diameter and carry up to 15,000 vehicles a day. Entry speeds are 15-20mph.
The PEC’s plan provided for roundabouts that would “bring entry speeds down to a safe 15-20mph.” Such entry speeds would thus classify them more precisely as mini-roundabouts, and these are currently used very effectively in several areas in the County, notably the Old Trail and Forest Lakes developments, and in Hollymead Town Center, where approaching traffic speeds are within the range of 20-25mph. The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) considers such sites “advantageous” for the placement of mini-roundabouts since the approach speeds are 35mph or less. Mini-roundabouts are however, “less suited for roadways with speeds exceeding 30-35mph,” says the FHA in a separate technical document.
The FHA points out other constraints: “Mini-roundabouts are not suitable for all locations,” particularly those with truck traffic [or horse trailers, or buses or firetrucks], “as trucks will occupy most of the intersection while turning” and will eventually ruin the central island. Nor are they recommended for “locations with light volumes of minor street traffic” (meaning, smaller side roads, such as Lindsay Road). This is because drivers on the major road become “conditioned over time to ignore the intersection control” since there are rarely vehicles entering from these side roads. The FHA cites U.K. regulations requiring at least 500 vehicles daily entering from the side streets before placing a roundabout.
The Down Side of Roundabouts
Given these constraints, is seven mini-roundabouts right for Rt. 22/231? Since VDOT has determined that the accident rate for our road is average, will these so-called “traffic calming” measures save lives?
Rt. 22/231 as a specific site for roundabouts has presumably been erased from County documents, but roundabouts will still remain in the County’s plans as traffic-calming “concepts” for rural roads. But concepts have a habit of becoming concrete when they enter the real world – especially when outside funding appears. It might be a good idea to consider the experiences of other localities before rushing into things.
Some of the major disadvantages have been well documented, namely emergency vehicle response times, increased emissions from vehicles, and light pollution.
Many of the studies conducted on roundabouts in relation to EMS vehicles include both speed bumps and roundabouts, since they are both common traffic calming measures that require vehicles to slow to 15-20mph to negotiate the obstacle.
A 1997 report by Ronald Bowman for the Boulder, CO, City Council, concluded that within Boulder, “neighborhood traffic mitigation” devices [read: traffic calming] would result in a 14 percent delay in response times, and result in more deaths than traffic accidents. The Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue Commission and the state’s Department of Public Works and Transportation Commission arrived at similar results in their 1997 study. This report cited tests results from Portland, OR, and Austin, TX, and concluded that:
“…traffic circles cause considerable delays for responding fire-rescue apparatus, which may adversely impact the outcome of certain life-threatening incidents such as those involving cardiac arrest, uncontrolled bleeding, or persons trapped in burning buildings or vehicles. Delays of this nature must be given serious attention by the public and government.”
Mr. Vanderwarker’s rather disparaging remark about his “keep-your-hands-off-my-Medicare” opponents was somewhat accurate, if inadvertently so. The median age for Keswick residents is 49, meaning half of all residents are 49 and over – ages where health issues are more likely to require emergency treatment.
Roundabouts would also have a disproportionately negative effect on Keswick’s African-American community. According to the Centers for Disease Control in 2009, “African-Americans had the largest death rates from heart disease and stroke compared with other racial and ethnic populations,” and these differences hold for all age groups. In fact, in 2010 heart disease was the number one cause of death for African-Americans.
In the case of Rt. 22/231 delays would be even greater due to longer distances and the number of obstacles. During rush hour, EMS vehicles would be forced into queus waiting to enter the roundabout.
Response to fire would also be slowed, as Mr. Craddock stressed. Fire flashover times are critical: What all firefighters know is that what happens in the first five minutes determines what happens in the next five hours.
Roundabouts in the countryside would take a toll on the environment. The County’s clean-air goals would suffer a setback. Case studies coming from Australia, Austria, Denmark, Holland, Sweden and the U.K., have shown that traffic calming devices cause startling increases in vehicular emissions of all kinds.
In Sweden, for instance, findings showed that vehicles slowing from 32mph to 19mph, then returning to 32mph, increased emissions by 20 percent and fuel consumption by 5 percent. Surprisingly, repeating the exercise ten times in a row increased emissions disproportionately by 200-300 percent and fuel consumption by 40-50 percent.
An Austrian study showed that a vehicle traveling at 20mph and slowing to 9mph to traverse a speed bump emitted 10 times more nitrogen oxide than one maintaining 20mph. Carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions were three times higher.
Tests conducted in the U.K. by the Transportation Research Laboratory found that the “mean emission rates of CO, HC, NOx, and CO2 from petrol non-catalyst, petrol catalyst, and diesel cars increased by up to 60% following the introduction of traffic calming measures.”
One might have expected the PEC, an environmental group, to be supporting the opposite side of this issue.
Roundabouts will bring to the Southwest Mountain District other forms of pollution: light and noise. The County’s existing roundabouts and the two traffic circles at the Airport have plenty of ambient lighting from surrounding structures. Rt. 22/231 has no such area lighting, and roundabout safety demands visibility.
All literature on roundabout safety stresses ample lighting in the rotary and in the approach areas of roundabouts. For our state’s lighting standards, VDOT relies on the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, which states that “illumination is recommended for all roundabouts including those in rural environments,” and specifically, that visibility must be provided “at conflict areas where traffic is entering . . . and all places where the traffic streams separate.”
The Federal Highway Administration defers to the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IESNA) for its lighting standards. In a 2005 study, two IESNA members studied 4 single-lane roundabouts in Maryland during day and night conditions, using computer models for visibility. They concluded that since headlights were ineffective when navigating a circle at night due to the curvature of the roundabout, both perimeter lighting at the circle and approach lighting 80 feet away from the roundabout entry was necessary. One IESNA report for Delaware’s roundabouts specifies 25-30 ft. utility poles containing high-pressure sodium lamps.
Thus, to ensure the safety of vehicles on Rt. 22/231, each roundabout would become a circle of vertical lights and a stream of roadside lights up to 80 feet away.
There are no noise studies involving roundabouts of which this writer is aware, but a little time spent at a truck stop will give a good idea of what it sounds like when a large diesel engine slows, then revs up again.
Which brings up the question: Would seven roundabouts deter traffic along Rt. 22/231? More importantly, would the goal of eliminating trucks be accomplished by roundabouts?
Only if there is an alternative route, and there is none at least until 2035, when Rt. 15 could be slated for “lane widening” by VDOT. But would truckers take this distant option? The human costs paid among Keswick residents for this unrealistic PEC goal could be all for nothing.
As the 2008 Sunnyvale, CA, “Neighborhood Traffic Calming Report” observed, “In virtually all instances, the traffic being controlled by physical calming tools will not disappear or make major changes in its travel patterns… [but] will merely divert some or all of that traffic to other neighborhood streets.” Bad drivers, the report noted, are “usually a relatively small percentage of the driving population . . . [but] traffic calming measures create delay and inconvenience for everyone…”
Yes, inconvenience. For residents who commute to work daily; for school buses and the children they carry to and from school; for anyone using this road for any reason.
Could It Happen?
The enthusiasm for roundabouts remains, however.
Charlottesville Tomorrow and its sister publication The Daily Progress published glowing reports on roundabouts in general a couple of days after the Dec. 9 County supervisors meeting. (As an aside, Mr. Vanderwarker is a Founding Board member of Charlottesville Tomorrow.) Channel 29 followed, and WCHV talk show host Coy Barefoot chimed in. Public opinion is being steered before both sides of the traffic calming issue have been carefully considered. We see the good roundabouts in our County at work, and want more. Unfortunately, however, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to traffic problems.
If County supervisors were reluctant to pass up Mr. Vanderwarker’s $40,000 PEC study, a multi-million dollar HUD grant would be next to impossible. And federal grants which aim to bypass the opposition of knuckle-dragging local populations are popping up all over the country. Last July, the Indianapolis Star reported that federal transportation dollars to Carmel City would be withdrawn when the City Council voted against the two roundabouts in the plan.
So, Mr. Werner’s statement about “traffic circles that will never happen” could be a bit premature. Never say never.
Finding Common Ground and Alternative Solutions
The “simple solutions” advocated by Mr.Werner are like the blind men and the elephant. What looks “simple” depends on where you’re standing.
It is not “simple” to remake Rt. 22/231, especially with all of the real-world problems associated with traffic calming — to say nothing about the environmental disaster that will follow. And traffic calming itself could be brought into question since it will not reduce the total volume of traffic, but just slow it down into seven bottlenecks.
Slowing down the traffic might be just as simple as posting lower speed limits and enforcing them with cameras. VDOT has processes for this: It’s a good bet that on election day, when Keswick residents show up to vote, most voters would sign VDOT’s required petition to lower the speed limits on Rt. 22/231. Perhaps Albemarle and Orange County law enforcement officials could cooperate to catch violators; fines could be set high enough to induce the cooperation of truckers.
Mssrs. Vanderwarker and Werner expressed concern about the broken edges and drop offs along the sides of Rt. 22/231. The lanes are indeed uncomfortably narrow for larger vehicles, and VDOT admitted as much at the March 29 town hall meeting. The shoulders on our road could be widened much like the curved portions on Rt. 20 between Proffit Road and the Stony Point Fire Station. And the land for the pull-offs in the PEC’s Rt. 22/231 plan could perhaps be donated by the same Rt. 231 donors who contributed to Mr. Vanderwarker’s $40,000 project.
It should be easy enough to find simple solutions and common ground. Nevertheless, the focus on roundabouts will not go away because they are central to the PEC’s traffic calming mantra.
The question arises: Is the PEC the right organization to find this common ground?
The PEC has done some laudable work in Keswick. Several years ago, Dominion Power ran the Hollymead power line over the mountain to Stony Point. PEC advisers provided key assistance to residents along Rt. 600 in convincing Dominion Power to put up lower, less intrusive power lines. Today the completed lines are practically invisible – but it took a community effort, and there was overall agreement on the goals. Mssrs. Vanderwarker and Werner have been tireless workers for their community, and are certainly well meaning. But the PEC’s plan for Rt. 22/231 lacks the broad-based support that it needs to lead the community on this issue.
The PEC is headquartered in Warrenton and covers nine counties – hardly a local organization. It is a non-profit, membership driven organization whose members subscribe to a particular set of views. One should not have to be a member of the PEC or any organization in order to be a bonafide member of one’s own community, any more than one would have to be a member of the Keswick Hunt Club, the Farm Bureau or the American Legion.
Moreover, the PEC is far from the kind of coalition that put together the Rt. 50 corridor in the 1990s. That Task Force consisted of 12 members appointed by Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation and the Fauquier and Loudoun County Boards of Supervisors, and included businessmen, farmers, commuters and VDOT representatives. It was co-chaired by members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board.
The April 2010 meeting from which the PEC claims “community support” was attended by 80 Keswick PEC members – out of a Keswick population of 3,668. (By contrast, Mr. Boyd’s town hall meeting had roughly the same attendance but represented a wider cross-section of the local population – and received quite a different community response.) The PEC’s plan was funded by a handful of local residents. In short, the PEC lacks the support it needs to shepherd the Keswick community when the “99 percent” are not part of its membership. And yet, it has much lobbying clout with County supervisors, and close contacts within the planning department.
What is needed is a truly representative group of residents from the Southwest Mountain District, one which would include our neighbors in Gordonsville along with VDOT officials, and which would welcome an open exchange of ideas. Ad hominem arguments are out of place in this important discussion which will affect the daily lives of every resident in our community.
Some Larger Issues
The possible inclusion of the PEC’s study in the County’s comprehensive plans brought up some larger issues. As Rivanna Supervisor Ken Boyd pointed out, the County had never before “included specific plans as part of the comprehensive plan.” Supervisor Jane Dittmar questioned whether it was “appropriate for an outside group to have a study in the comprehensive plan . . . How do we say no, your study doesn’t belong, but we’ll take your study.” Supervisor Brad Sheffield echoed Petie Craddock’s observation, that “things like this sit in plans and become institutionalized.”
Mr. Vanderwarker made it clear to supervisors that those who had funded the PEC’s $40,000 plan had also donated to the campaigns of supervisors in the last election. There was some hand-wringing among a few supervisors who were finding it hard to resist a $40,000 gift, and wondered if incorporating a privately funded study in public documents would open the doors to other high-dollar free-bees — ones less attractive than the PEC’s.
One hopes that as the issue moves forward, that supervisors will act to make the decision-making process more open, more transparent, and more inclusive. Keswick’s “99 percent” do have something to say.
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“PEC Initiates Community Discussion on Rt. 22/231 Corridor,” Piedmont Environmental Council, 26 April, 2010