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EDITORIAL: Citrus Heights traffic is terrible. Could this be a solution?

Traffic, Citrus Heights
File photo, traffic on Auburn Boulevard in Citrus Heights. // CH Sentinel

If you’ve been a reader of The Sentinel for any amount of time, you know it’s not a publication known for taking positions on issues. We believe in reporting the facts. We don’t endorse or oppose candidates. But every now and then, there’s an issue that comes up deserving of some commentary. Traffic is one of them.

Traffic in Citrus Heights is terrible. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. If anything, the heavy traffic is just an unfortunate side-effect of the city’s success: as businesses grow and land gets developed, traffic necessarily grows along with it.

But can anything more be done? The city is 98% built-out, with little vacant land. Sunrise Boulevard likely can’t be widened without bulldozing buildings. Adding two more lanes to Greenback isn’t realistic. Flying cars are still a distant dream.

What if the answer were right next door? Downtown Roseville had a similar problem as Citrus Heights: a built-out area, with traffic snarls and little hope of widening roads. What did they do? They replaced a signalized intersection with a modern roundabout on Washington Boulevard at Oak Street in 2014.

If you’re wondering why that would help, the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has long-advocated the use of roundabouts to improve traffic flow and reduce injury collisions. Benefits include:

  • Lives saved. Federal studies have found roundabouts result in up to a 90% reduction in fatalities, a 76% reduction in injury crashes, and a 30-40% reduction in pedestrian crashes, compared to conventional signalized intersections. This comes from a reduction in possible collision points, drivers not being able to run a “red light” at a roundabout, and the curved design naturally causing drivers to enter the intersection at a slower speed.
  • Improved traffic flow. The FHWA reports a 30-50% increase in traffic capacity at intersections with roundabouts, since drivers don’t have to stop when entering the intersection.
  • Fuel savings. Caltrans cites studies showing a 30% average decrease in fuel consumption per vehicle at intersections with roundabouts, due to less time idling and no need to start from a complete stop. That also means cleaner air and a cleaner environment.

The facts are heavily in favor of roundabouts, modern roundabouts that is — and there are significant differences. Although there are several circular intersections in Citrus Heights, there’s only one modern roundabout: it’s located on Stock Ranch Road and Fountain Square Drive, near city hall. It features a circular intersection, where drivers yield to enter and then navigate counterclockwise around a center island. It also features raised curbs at entry points to force drivers to enter at an angle to prevent wrong way drivers and collisions.

Roundabout, Citrus Heights
The only modern roundabout in Citrus Heights is located at Stock Ranch Road and Fountain Square Drive. // CH Sentinel

Although there was initially some skepticism from nearby residents about the roundabout on Stock Ranch Road, former Citrus Heights Principal Civil Engineer Kevin Becker told The Sentinel that once the roundabout was put in place, residents loved it because “they never have to stop.”

For many years, Caltrans was also among the skeptics of roundabouts, but in January, The Sacramento Bee quoted an agency official saying that Caltrans now considers them “one of the best tools in our tool box.”

A few other benefits of roundabouts include:

  • Business: Improved traffic flow is good for business. When traffic is at a stand still during rush hour, who is going to drive down Greenback to get to the Sunrise Mall? They’ll order what they need online instead — or at least the temptation will be much greater to do so. That affects both business in Citrus Heights and the City of Citrus Heights, which relies on sales tax to supply about one-third of the city’s general fund.
  • Lower costs. According to the FHWA, roundabouts typically have a lifespan of double that of signalized equipment. They require less maintenance. They can also operate just fine without power. They don’t need a police officer to direct traffic when the “signal” doesn’t work. And they reduce the need for law enforcement to respond to accidents, so they can focus on apprehending criminals.
  • Aesthetics. The curved design along with more greenery in the center island is more pleasant than a stop sign or signal and pavement.

Roundabouts even eliminate the moral dilemma about whether drivers should perform a complete stop when they come to stop sign in the middle of nowhere — if there’s a roundabout, you never have to stop.

So if there’s so many benefits to roundabouts, why aren’t there more of them?

Skepticism. The FHWA admits roundabouts have plenty of skeptics, which is often a major reason transportation agencies are leery of considering them as a solution to improve safety and traffic flow. To address this objection, the agency says, “Trying one roundabout is usually all it takes to convince even the biggest skeptic of their benefits.”

Citrus Heights Police Chief Ron Lawrence used to be one of those skeptics back when he was police chief in Rocklin and the city decided to put in two roundabouts. He said he was initially skeptical about their safety and efficiency, but after seeing them put in, he told The Sentinel that collisions dropped and the flow of traffic was “much, much better.” Rocklin now has plans to add several more roundabouts.

Cost. Installation can be costly, but grant money is available for such projects. In Rocklin, the city announced plans last year to install another roundabout at Rocklin Road and Pacific street at a cost of $2.9 million — but $2.5 million of that will be covered by federal grant money, according to a report in the Placer Herald. Cities have also been known to require developers to pay for roundabout installation in connection with housing or commercial projects, which appears to be the case with a roundabout planned on Arcadia Drive at the entrance to the proposed 261-home Mitchell Farms development.

Related: New map shows proposed 55-acre housing development in Citrus Heights

Size. One downside to roundabouts is the space it takes to install them. They need a little more room than a typical four-way stop, and more room than an intersection. What can be done about the space limitations? Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel, Indiana has overseen the installation of more than 100 roundabouts in his city of about 91,000 population. He says given just the benefit of lowering traffic fatalities, it’s worth it to purchase easements, demolish buildings, and buy land in order to install roundabouts — and typically offering 20% over market value has done the job and left land owners in his city happy.

Confusion. Roundabouts can certainly be confusing for new drivers, but so can merging on the freeway. Over time, evidence shows drivers get used to it. Let’s also not forget that stop signs can have the same confusion when two drivers arrive at the same time, both stop, and then both wave the other driver to go, or both go at the same time.

Construction time. Closing down an intersection to install a roundabout is a very real concern, but this downside exists with most any construction. Roseville’s roundabout only required partial traffic closures during installation, so there are ways to minimize traffic impacts during construction.

While roundabouts might not be an option to alleviate traffic on Greenback Lane or Sunrise Boulevard, it would be hard to believe there aren’t a few intersections in the city that couldn’t benefit from a roundabout. Old Auburn Road at Mariposa Avenue, for example, or perhaps as an alternative to the new traffic signal the city is considering on Auburn Boulevard where the new Studio Movie Grill is slated to be built.

Related: Prominent gateway arch, signal proposed for Auburn Blvd

With proven benefits to safety, traffic flow, the environment and business, roundabouts should at minimum be on the table for discussion as an option for roadway improvements throughout the city. With limited space to add more lanes, roundabouts are an attractive option to increase traffic flow by up to 50%.

For those who are still skeptical, take a drive to city hall and take a spin on the roundabout. It’s beautiful, you never have to stop, and you also don’t have to worry about being T-boned by someone running a stop sign.

Want to share your own thoughts about traffic or roundabouts in Citrus Heights? Click here to submit a letter to the editor for publication.

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