The state is moving forward with a plan to build a roundabout next year near the turnpike service plaza on Route 126 in West Gardiner, but there could be minor changes to make the dangerous intersection safer sooner.
The plan faced some opposition from community members at a public meeting in early March, but Maine Department of Transportation officials say the roundabout is the best option for the intersection, where the number of crashes has jumped from two in the four years before the plaza was built to 34 in the four years afterward.
The $1.4 million project, a collaboration between the department and the Maine Turnpike Authority, will be funded largely by federal highway safety money. It is expected to be built in 2015 at the intersection of Route 126, the turnpike service plaza and the Interstate 95 northbound exit and southbound entrance ramps.
Based on feedback at the public meeting, however, department and turnpike officials plan to meet in April to discuss possible signage or making changes to make the intersection less confusing for drivers, according to Peter Merfel, the turnpike authority’s chief operations officer. The goal would be to make any changes before Memorial Day, when the traffic begins to increase, he said.
The department also will re-examine the design of the plaza entrances and exits because people at the public meeting said they find that area confusing, said Paul MacDonald, the project manager for the department.
Shortly after the meeting, the town of West Gardiner also requested a speed limit study to see if the department can lower the 45-mph speed limit.
The study, which won’t be done until the spring at the earliest, actually could end up raising the speed limit or keep it the same, said Steve Landry, a department traffic engineer. The department evaluates several criteria, including the number of crashes and intersections, to determine the speed limit, Landry said.
Some feedback at the public meeting was aimed at the turnpike authority because the plaza faced some local opposition when first proposed, and crashes spiked after it was built.
Merfel said the plaza’s location was chosen because turnpike service plazas in Lewiston and Litchfield needed to be replaced, and the transportation department was looking into shutting down rest areas in Sidney.
The plaza met the goals of providing truck parking and replacing the plazas and rest areas being shut down, he said.
Merfel said the turnpike authority has pledged $350,000 for the roundabout project, so it probably will end up paying more than the 10 percent required to get the federal funds. The rest will be picked up by the federal safety money.
The project is eligible for the safety funds because the intersection has such a high rate of crashes, according to the department. It has the highest critical-rate factor in the state, which takes into account the number of crashes and amount of traffic in a location.
Part of the department’s presentation at the public meeting in March was informing people how to drive on roundabouts and why they’re safe.
Roundabouts reduce the number of conflict points, or number of ways to crash. A typical four-way intersection with a traffic light has 32 conflict points, compared to eight for roundabouts. Because of this, roundabouts reduce fatalities up to 90 percent and injury crashes by 76 percent, according to the department.
Roundabouts are different from rotaries in that roundabouts are smaller and lead drivers to the lanes from which they’ll be exiting.
The state has 22 roundabouts and three rotaries, and nearly all of the roundabouts were built in the last decade, Landry said.
It’s not uncommon for the state to face resistance when looking to install new traffic patterns such as roundabouts, MacDonald said.
“You always get some people who are for it and some people who are opposed to it. It’s about sharing information. That’s why we’re there,” MacDonald said. “There are some people that you’re not going to sway one way or another. You’re not going to convince them you’re doing the right thing as far as road safety. They just feel that it’s going to be unsafe, and they want people to know.”
MacDonald said people who originally opposed a roundabout built last year in Blue Hill have since called him to say how much they like it.