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Roundabouts: Stuck At Red Light In Hartford

Toni Gold

September 05, 2010

For about a decade, there has been a small but vocal constituency in Hartford advocating the replacement of signalized intersections with modern roundabouts or at least to try a pilot project at one intersection. It began with the first conceptual plan for Farmington Avenue in 2000, which showed roundabouts at the intersections of Farmington with Sigourney, Woodland and Sisson all bottlenecks with very poor levels of service and poor safety records.

Yet it seems like there is a passive-aggressive campaign to defeat roundabouts anywhere in the city. By continually promising to look at this alternative, and continually delaying, and then declaring that it won't work, the Hartford Department of Public Works has held off this modern, cost-effective, pedestrian- and community-friendly infrastructure improvement.

Now the final nail is poised to go into the coffin: This year's capital improvement budget shows $3 million to be spent over the next three years for an item labeled "traffic signal and camera," and described thusly in the text:

"This program is to install new traffic signals and replace existing signals and other electronic equipment due to obsolescence. Also replace non functioning traffic cameras. This program is to ensure continued functionality of 250 +/- critical signalized locations in Hartford's traffic control network, and to keep Hartford on the cutting edge of signal technology."

It gets worse. Both the signals and the cameras (to spot red-light runners) come with maintenance and service contracts, which will be a drain on the DPW operating budget for years or decades to come not to mention the electric power to run them.

Red light cameras are an expensive patch for a failed technology traffic signals. Both are touted vigorously by the signal and camera manufacturers, which promise a source of savings and revenue for the city from traffic tickets sent by mail with photos to red-light runners. But this pathetic source of revenue can't justify the large capital and the ongoing maintenance costs.

It gets still worse. This "cutting-edge technology" is oversized and out of scale with a pedestrian environment, not to mention ugly. Think West Hartford, where it is being installed aggressively, usually accompanied by added right- or left-turn lanes thus larger intersections with slightly longer count-down signals thrown in as a sop to pedestrians.

West Hartford has done most things right in the community development and traffic arena, particularly in developing Blue Back Square, but street intersections is not one of them.

Unfortunately, Hartford's DPW is staffed with traffic engineers trained in automobile support and without the broad transportation background that is essential if the city is to push back against the inexorable auto-creep that has hollowed it out and devastated it for 50 years.

But then, they have had no political cover, even if they were inclined to experiment. Former Mayor Eddie Perez said on more than one occasion, "We tried roundabouts and they didn't work." Wrong. Hartford has never tried a properly designed modern roundabout. What was tried were a few "mini-circles" in tiny residential intersections that were not modified to accommodate them.

Resident opinion was divided, and the bus drivers hated them with good reason. Roundabout advocates said at the time, "Uh-oh," because they were a misnamed experiment done on the cheap that seemed designed to fail and provide an excuse for not doing more. Unless new Mayor Pedro Segarra takes a second look or the city council takes a stand, roundabouts are doomed in Hartford, despite their numerous advantages.

By comparison with fancy new traffic signals, modern roundabouts are cheap and self-enforcing. They come without the need for service and maintenance contracts or any electric power use at all. Red-light running can't happen with roundabouts, which require vehicles to slow down to about 15 mph to navigate the turns. And since only right turns are made, reducing the points of conflict by 75 percent at a typical four-way intersection, roundabouts have a dramatically better safety record than any signalized intersection.

They have been endorsed by both the Federal Highway Administration, which has published an exhaustive roundabout technical manual; and by the insurance industry, which is much taken with their safety record and the accompanying reduction in deaths, injury severity and property damage.

Roundabouts are appropriate technology in most places in most urban environments cheaper, safer, prettier what more could a city ask? Yet Hartford has a built-in backward-looking bias towards signalization, a technology quite the opposite of its description as "cutting edge."

But worst of all, the proposed capital investment in outmoded technology for 250 signalized locations will preclude for decades the shift to a simple, less expensive and more appropriate technology. And this in a year when municipal budgets couldn't be tighter.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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