Less than six years after the state helped build a new service plaza in West Gardiner for Interstate 295 and Maine Turnpike, it’s proposing to build a roundabout there to make one of the most crash-prone intersections in the state safer.
West Gardiner residents who regularly drive on Route 126 where vehicles exit and enter the turnpike, which also is Interstate 95, and where the service plaza crosses, say the intersection is a hazard, but some doubt a roundabout will do any more than confuse drivers further.
However, state officials say roundabouts have proved to be safer than other designs, such as one using traffic signals.
The project’s estimated $1.4 million price tag will be covered largely by the federal government because it’s such a dangerous intersection. It has the state’s highest critical rate factor, which takes into account the number of crashes and amount of traffic at a location, according to the Maine Department of Transportation
In the four years before the plaza was installed, there were two crashes at the intersection, according to the department. In the four years afterward, there were 34.
“It’s a hazard,” said Judy Abbott, 64, who lives a mile west of the intersection on Route 126, also known as Route 9 and Lewiston Road. “The more times you go through it, the higher the likelihood you’ll be involved in something unpleasant.”
She said she doesn’t think safety was a goal when the service plaza was built, and the state is trying to make it safe after the fact.
“I just know what I’ve witnessed and how difficult it is for me to drive through there at this point because I’ve had so many experiences. It’s traumatic for me now,” Abbott said.
Stephen Landry, a DOT traffic engineer, said the department didn’t anticipate crashes would increase so much after the service plaza was built, because the intersection is fairly straight and flat.
“It’s not something that would have jumped out, that we were going to have crashes there,” he said. “This is all about driving behavior. Some of it is with the sun, some of it is with people taking chances and not wanting to wait.”
The department will hold a public meeting on the proposed roundabout from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Helen Thompson School library in West Gardiner.
West Gardiner Fire Chief Chris McLaughlin said crashes at the intersection have declined in the last few years, but the location still accounted for more than a third of the motor vehicle crashes in West Gardiner that the department has responded to since 2011.
The Maine Turnpike Authority put the project forward because of the high rate of crashes at the intersection, said Paul MacDonald, the department project manager for the proposal.
He said when the service plaza proposal was being developed in the mid-2000s, roundabouts weren’t as popular among traffic experts.
“They’re more popular now because they’ve been proven to be very safe and effective and reducing crashes and fatalities,” MacDonald said.
The key to the safety of roundabouts is the reduced number of conflict points, or number of ways to crash, MacDonald said. A typical four-way intersection with a traffic light has 32 conflict points, compared to eight for roundabouts. Roundabouts reduce fatalities up to 90 percent and injury crashes by 76 percent, according to the department.
Some West Gardiner residents suggested installing a traffic signal instead, but Landry said that aside from the fact that a traffic signal would be less safe, the intersection doesn’t have enough traffic to warrant it.
The $1.4 million project is expected to be finished sometime in 2015. The state is using federal highway safety funds to pay for 90 percent of the project, and the turnpike authority is picking up the remaining 10 percent, according to the department.
The federal safety funds would have been unavailable when the service plaza was first installed because the intersection’s crash rate wasn’t as high then, Landry said.
Residents interviewed by the Kennebec Journal who drive through the intersection regularly said they often see vehicles, especially tractor-trailer trucks, failing to stop at the blinking red light or cutting others off after stopping.
JoAnne Bucci, who lives in West Gardiner a few miles west of the intersection, said she was one of the first people involved in a crash at the intersection after it was completed in November 2008.
Bucci, 48, said she, her husband and their children were going to visit family shortly after Christmas that year when a vehicle turning onto Route 126 from the turnpike didn’t stop and slammed into her car. No one was hurt, but her family was shaken up, she said.
Bucci said she hasn’t been involved in any crashes since then, but she’s cautious whenever she’s crossing the intersection.
“I always proceed with caution and slow down and get a good view, because it’s definitely dangerous. Obviously, there are a lot of people that come here from out of state, and they’re not aware of what they should do,” she said.
People who often commute on that road said near-misses — something not tracked by the department — are also common.
Abbott said she’s experienced around five near-misses in the last few years. Her husband, Tom Abbott, said he’s had to slam on his brakes or swerve out of the way of another vehicle 20 to 30 times.
“If I wasn’t as adept at driving, those would have been accidents,” he said.
Some West Gardiner residents objected to the service plaza because they thought it would disrupt their town’s rural character. Tom Abbott said even though he understands more development is a result of progress, he thinks the location was designed poorly, given that the major roads it serves, I-95 and I-295, don’t have direct access to it. However, Abbott, 64, said he thinks the roundabout will work, as long as people follow the rules.
Not all residents have as much faith in the plan.
Bucci said she thinks roundabouts confuse people, and installing a traffic signal would be safer.
“I think it’s a bad choice for road design,” she said. “I think roundabouts scare everybody. Once anybody says the word ‘roundabout,’ I think everybody cringes because they’re usually dangerous.”
Both Landry and MacDonald, the project manager, said it’s not unusual for residents to object to proposed roundabouts in their communities.
Landry said he thinks part of the resistance to roundabouts is the bad rap of rotaries, another circular traffic pattern.
As rotaries, Cony and Memorial circles in Augusta were previously the locations with the greatest number of crashes, Landry said, “and people just latched on to that.” He said they’ve dropped on the list since Cony Circle was converted to a roundabout and Memorial Circle was modified to be more like a roundabout, with new lines and signs.
Converting Cony Circle to a roundabout reduced crashes by 63 percent, Landry said.
Although some people use the terms interchangeably, rotaries and roundabouts are different in their design and purpose.
Rotaries are larger and designed to keep traffic flowing at higher speeds. They also can force drivers to shift lanes as they exit. Roundabouts are smaller and lead drivers to the lanes from which they’ll be exiting.
“Rotaries were meant to move a lot of traffic and not necessarily doing it safely,” Landry said. “It’s an older design, and roundabouts are something newer. They’re a lot more safe, and they get people to operate at slower speeds.”
The state has 22 roundabouts and three rotaries, and nearly all of the roundabouts were built in the last decade, Landry said.
After roundabouts were built in other areas of the state, MacDonald said, some residents called the department to tell him that they work well.
“Some of it will be opinion,” MacDonald said of the initial objections. “We can prove that it is safer and it is better. Whether you want to believe it or not is up to the individuals themselves.”