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A roundly hated roundabout

Last modified: 8/27/2011 12:00:00 AM
When the 18-wheeler came into view, Steve Brown, owner of Ross Express trucking company, focused right in on it. He wanted to see if it safely cleared New Hampshire's newest roundabout.

"Here we go," Brown said as the truck approached him on Route 4 in Boscawen.

Brown says the tires on at least eight of his trucks have blown on the granite curbing of islands that feed traffic into the roundabout. The tires cost $300 each, he said.

The truck in question traveled through the circular roadway without incident, though it came closer to the curbing - within a foot - than Brown would have liked.

The Boscawen roundabout, which opened earlier this month and was completed last week, has been a source of strain for Brown and the drivers of his approximately 60 trucks that travel through it daily.

"It's the talk of the barn," he said.

It's the talk of Boscawen, too.

Shouts of "This is stupid" and "You didn't build this, did you?" flew out of the car windows of frustrated motorists last week - some stuck behind drivers who were stopping when they should have been going. One man pulled over his car and approached Brown, mistaking the businessman for a state Department of Transportation employee.

"This has got to be the worst roundabout I have seen," Philip Alton told Brown.

"I bet you $100 within a year they'll dismantle this because it is unsafe," said Alton, 62, a Salisbury resident who used to drive large trucks.

Alton's and Brown's concerns echo those of local officials.

"I remain unconvinced that this is a good use of a roundabout," said Boscawen Selectwoman Lorrie Carey.

"If the goal is to slow people down, it has achieved that goal," Carey said. "If the goal is to have people commute with a smile on their face, we've failed."

The Boscawen roundabout is too small, confuses motorists and was done with insufficient local consultation, locals say. But state officials say drivers just need to adjust to the new structure, which will make the area safer and allow the traffic to move more efficiently.

"At least wait for it to be finished and to look at it from that perspective," said Bill Boynton, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.

With a diameter of 135 feet, the Boscawen roundabout ranks in the middle of the state's 21 in terms of size. The largest is on Route 101 in Keene, which has a 229-foot diameter, and the smallest, on Route 10 in Hanover, is 85 feet in diameter.

 Cost and safety

Carey and others said they would have preferred the state install a traffic light at the intersection rather than a roundabout. But transportation officials, who met with locals in three public meetings last year, said they chose the roundabout for cost and safety reasons.

The intersection at Harris Hill Road and Route 4 was chosen for improvements because of the area's frequent accidents - 25 between 2002 and 2006, Boynton said, though none of them caused fatalities. The area also became congested at rush hour.

Federal money covered 100 percent of the $1.2 million cost to build the roundabout, officials said.

Roundabouts - which differ from rotaries because they use islands to direct vehicles rather than just shoot them into the lanes - ease congestion and make traffic move more safely, officials said.

The state installed its first roundabouts in Meredith and Plymouth in the summer of 2007, Boynton said. Eighteen more are planned or under consideration.

Unlike red lights, which drivers can blow through and cause deadly accidents, roundabouts force vehicles to slow down.

"Roundabouts are smaller and designed so that you can't drive into them at a high rate of speed," Boynton said.

Although Carey said she travels through the roundabout several times a day and has seen traffic back up as far as the park-and-ride lot near the Hannah Dustin site, the structures keep traffic flowing steadily, officials said.

"There shouldn't be traffic backed up," Boynton said. "That's the point of them: Traffic moves."

But Boscawen police Chief Kevin Wyman said he had his own trouble with the Route 4 roundabout last week.

"I had to turn off my emergency lights because it was just so tight that cars couldn't get out of the way," Wyman said. "I was concerned people were going to panic."

He said people trying to drive off the road to make way for emergency crews could damage their cars.

Many of the problems, both local and state officials said, could be addressed as locals become more familiar with the new layout.

"We've had similar situations in other roundabouts where people were concerned that they were too narrow, too small," said Craig Green, assistant director of project development at the Department of Transportation. "And after a while, once they were used to driving them, we have not heard of any more issues."

But Brown and his truckers are less certain.

"They did not give us enough room to maneuver a tractor-trailer," he said.

Officials defend the roundabout's size, saying if it had been any larger, the traffic would not have been forced to slow down, which would have defeated the purpose.

Brown is concerned that trucks - some of his are as long as 53 feet and can weigh 40 tons - will get stuck in the roundabout, need to back up to make a turn and not have enough room.

Officials say the design accounts for his concerns and that more experience could address the problem.

 Blowing tires

The central islands in roundabouts are circled by a strip, usually made of brick or cobblestones and raised a few inches above the pavement, called an apron.

When passing through, vehicles are supposed stay on the pavement, but the trucks can drive over the cobblestones if they need to.

Ross's trucks began blowing tires before the construction was finished, officials point out. Until last week, the intersection needed another few inches of pavement. Up to that point, the curbs were sharper and higher than they are now, which was yet another sore spot for locals.

"They opened up the roundabout prior to it being safe to the public," said Boscawen Town Administrator Michael Wright.

The islands that guide traffic into the roundabout have sharp granite curbs at angles perpendicular to the road, but the roundabout's apron meets the road at a gentler angle.

It was on the exterior islands, not the interior apron, where the trucks blew their tires, Brown said.

Now that the road is higher and the angles gentler, the drivers might be less likely to damage their tires.

Even once drivers adjust, locals said they worry about what will happen this winter. Where will all the snow go? they wonder.

"We do have other roundabouts in the state that we maintain, and we are able to plow them," Boynton said. "This isn't going to be any different than those."

Green said the unpopular new intersection will not be dismantled, but further changes to the paving or angling on the islands could happen.

"If there are some situations or designs where there's some difficulty going on, we're certainly going to address those," Green said.

(Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or mconnors@cmonitor.com.)


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