The proposal of a roundabout at Watertown’s busiest downtown intersection was a polarizing idea during an open house at City Hall last week, when feedback from area residents showed that a roundabout was both the most popular option among those who attended, but also the most disliked alternative as well.
The City Council hosted an open house on April 18, along with city staff members and members of the city’s engineering firm, Bolton and Menk, to seek public input regarding a number of proposed alternatives for reconstructing the intersection at Lewis Avenue and Territorial Street. The Territorial Street bridge is expected to be reconstructed next spring, and the city plans to use $350,000 in funding from the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Local Road Improvement Program to re-design the nearby intersection as well in order to better accommodate heavy traffic both in the present, and as the city continues to grow.
While there are as many as six possible alternatives for bridge and intersection alignments still on the table, all but two have fatal flaws and are not being seriously considered. The two primary options remaining in consideration include either a roundabout or an intersection designed for a future traffic signal. The intersection does not currently meet the county’s standards for having a signal, so if that option is chosen, subsequent discussions would likely be needed to determine the intersection’s immediate status, likely as either a two-way or a four-way stop.
Roughly 30 residents and business owners attended the open house, with 17 of them returning the city’s official comment card. Of those 17 cards, nine people indicated that a roundabout was their first choice for the intersection, more than twice as many as the next most popular option.
“It seems to be the safest and most effective way to move traffic through the intersection,” one person wrote on their card.
Four people indicated a four-way stop was their preference, three said a traffic signal would be the best option, and one indicated the bridge should be rebuilt the way it is. But while a roundabout was the preferred alternative among a majority of those that attended the meeting, it also had the strongest opposition. A roundabout was chosen five times as the least-favorable alternative, the same amount of times as rehabbing the current bridge was chosen as the worst option, which the State Historic Preservation Office could still require because of the bridge’s historic nature.
When asked on the comment card why an option was selected by the respondent as least-preferable, one resident indicated what many perceive as the confusing nature of roundabouts.
“People don’t know how to drive in it,” one person wrote in reference to the city’s other new roundabout at County Road 20 and Territorial Street.
When considering how to best redesign the intersection and bridge, where traffic backs up heavily during peak hours before and after school, there are multiple other factors to consider besides the efficiency of the design itself. For instance, in order to allow for turn lanes, a bridge designed for an eventual traffic signal at Lewis Avenue would need to be built wider than a bridge designed for a roundabout, and with an estimated price tag of $4.67 million, would be more expensive than the roundabout option, which would come with an estimated price tag of $4.1 million. The city and county are still working on a joint powers agreement that would better define which entity is responsible for which costs, and how much of them.
Those who attended the open house got to see simulated traffic patterns for how each alternative would likely affect traffic both right now and in 2025, given projected city growth. Each option posed at least some long-term concerns given the 2025 traffic projections, but a two-way stop appeared to have the most significant problems. With traffic stopped on Lewis Avenue as Territorial Street traffic moved through freely, the 2025 simulation showed traffic backing all the way down Lewis Avenue throughout downtown, with few opportunities to turn onto or cross Territorial Street with heavy cross traffic.
One resident also expressed concern on a comment card that none of the proposed alternatives would completely solve the traffic problems at peak hours. According to that theory, while there may be one option to best get traffic through the Lewis and Territorial intersection in a free flowing pattern, traffic could potentially get backed up just a few blocks down the road instead, when it reaches a stop sign at County Road 25.
Most of that traffic would be turning right on County Road 25 to head toward the high school and middle school, but would still need to wait for an opening in cross traffic. While the same is currently true, traffic on Territorial Street now approaches County Road 25 at a more staggered pattern because of the four-way stop at Lewis Avenue. If traffic were to flow undeterred past Lewis Avenue, backups could instead occur at County Road 25.
“(A new bridge) will help with flooding, but not overall traffic,” the person wrote on a card. “It just passes it down the road.”
The city council has scheduled a workshop to discuss the alignment alternatives for April 30. Discussion of alignment alternatives will also be on the city council agenda for May 14. Given a general need to make a decision as soon as possible in order to stay on track for construction in the spring of 2014, a decision could be made by the council during that May 14 meeting, although Fischer said there is no definitive timetable.
“Time is of the essence when it comes to making a selection,” Fischer said, “but on the same token, there is an adequate amount of time for the council to take some time and be deliberate in its decision making.”
Fischer also said that any resident who hasn’t already provided feedback on the alternatives can still do so by e-mailing city staff or council members, or sending mail to city hall.
“That stuff helps,” Fischer said. “The council spends a lot of time reading comments and understanding different perspectives. Public input is an important part of this process.”
Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]