Welcome to the roundabout club, Carbondale
Special to The Aspen Times
Carbondale is the last Roaring Fork Valley municipality without a traffic roundabout — but not for long.
In 2014, the town of 6,500 people at the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers is scheduled to get its first traffic circle at the busiest intersection in town — Main Street and Highway 133. The roundabout is the focal point of a $6.4 million overhaul of the state highway that will begin next spring.
Construction activity on the 133 corridor will begin this fall as crews relocate and bury electrical, cable and fiber-optic lines on the highway shoulder. Town residents will get a break from the disruption during winter; the actual highway work is scheduled to run from April to October.
The Colorado Department of Transportation describes the upcoming project as “safety and operational improvements.” State highway engineers had recommended an expansion of 133 to four lanes (the 133 bridge over the Roaring Fork is already that wide), but Carbondale resisted that idea, claiming that two-lane 133 already bisects the town.
In the end, the state and the town compromised with the addition of a third, middle lane that will allow both northbound and southbound vehicles to turn left. Engineers say the new lane will relieve congestion, and they also will add various pedestrian- and bike-oriented improvements in deference to Carbondale’s wishes.
“Highway 133 is going to be difficult for pedestrians to navigate no matter what we do,” said Carbondale Public Works Director Larry Ballenger. “But CDOT has listened to the town, they’ve reviewed our comprehensive plan, and they understand how important it is to the town not to have a highway that segments the community into east and west.”
Wider shoulders, improved crosswalks bike paths paralleling the highway on the east and west will all make the highway corridor more user-friendly, but the real centerpiece of the project is the roundabout at Main and 133. The town’s busiest intersection has a grocery store, hardware store, liquor store and gas station on its corners as well as various restaurants, sandwich shops and retail outlets. The switch from the existing signalized intersection to a roundabout will change the way virtually every town resident goes about their daily business.
“When we first began talking about a roundabout, some business owners expressed a lot of concern,” Ballenger said. “CDOT really listened to those business owners and changed the design to allow left turns in and out of those businesses.”
The current design of the roundabout includes medians on Main Street and the highway that will prohibit certain left-turn movements that are currently allowed, but this perceived loss of convenience should also reduce accidents. The medians also will provide a refuge for pedestrians who cross at the roundabout.
Ballenger said he knew nothing about roundabouts before the planning for this highway project, but he’s now convinced that “pedestrians will be safer after the roundabout than they would be trying to cross now.”
A recent CDOT memo said vehicular crashes in general drop by 48 percent when intersections are switched from stoplights to roundabouts, and injury crashes drop by as much as 78 percent.
Partly for that reason, future roundabouts are envisioned at several other intersections between Highway 133’s junction with Highway 82 and Carbondale’s southern border. Those roundabouts are tied to future development proposals, however, and aren’t part of the 2014 project.
Since many vehicles enter Carbondale from the Main Street/133 junction, the town is considering some kind of entrance feature, possibly a sculpture by midvalley artist James Surls.
“A roundabout presents the opportunity for a gateway feature by allowing for unique landscaping or artwork at the center,” said CDOT project manager Bart Necessary.
So, though Carbondale is currently behind Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt and Glenwood Springs when it comes to the traffic-circle trend, the midvalley town may someday have the most of any local municipality. Ballenger believes the roundabout fits Carbondale’s green mindset.
“Roundabouts permit the movement of vehicular traffic; it keeps you moving where a signalized intersection makes the traffic stop and start,” he said. “It takes a lot of fossil-fuel energy to operate a highway that way.”
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