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Will the Circle be Unbroken?

Debate goes round about the roundabout

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Nine thousand cars travel Warm Springs Avenue daily. With the opening of the East Park Center Bridge, state traffic counts estimate a diversion from the avenue of at least one-third of those vehicles. Additionally, the relocation of East Junior High (around 650 students) may reduce the upstream figure even more.

Ada County Highway District--the only such $84-plus-million district in Idaho--at the urging of certain East End Neighborhood Association members, has coupled its funds with predominantly federal money passed through the Idaho Department of Transportation to propagate a controversial roundabout on east Warm Springs Avenue. (In 2004, the district's cost estimate was $600,000.) In March 2007, when a public meeting was held by the District at Adams Elementary, 60 percent of those who attended expressed opposition to the concept plan. At that meeting, the district spokesperson said the project would "tie up traffic for at least six months"--choking the avenue down to one lane with flaggers--on a 30-mph street with on-street parking, dual bike lanes, and a school zone and a stoplight only 300 yards away.

In April 2007, ACHD's report about the nearby Harris Ranch specific plan said, "ACHD supports roundabouts but only at locations where they would replace other traffic controls, such as four-way stops or signalized intersections. [The Warm Springs location has neither.] By contrast, a two-way stop-controlled intersection [Old Penitentiary/Granite Way] would not merit the roundabout treatment." Nonetheless, ACHD, oblivious, proceeded with its plans, contracting with a Nampa project engineering consultant for more than $115,000 in preliminary designs, and signing another contract for planting designs.

In May 2007, Mark Lenters, head of Ourston Roundabout Engineering and foremost American authority on roundabouts, was asked by the then-president of EENA to comment on the latest ACHD design and after examining the site replied, "Having a circle as small as 110 feet is too small for the traffic needs and the desired speed reduction ..." The circle contracted, nevertheless, and although there was no longer room for a properly engineered circle, the plan expanded to 53 pages of engineered drawings, with many more to come.

Surprised residents have renewed their strenuous opposition to this ill-conceived overreaction to a nonexistent problem--an intersection virtually accident-free for 10 years. The current president of EENA has expressed strong reservations about the project and continues to ask if other options can achieve the roundabout's predicted traffic calming.

At the end of April, the board of the Warm Springs Estates Homeowners Association voted unanimously not to endorse the roundabout preliminary plan, saying that if ACHD intends to move forward with the plan as it stands, "the funds might be better spent somewhere else." This month, the project director conceded that "if the right of way is not available, ACHD will likely not construct the roundabout." (That's because the required land donation match with the state had evaporated, unless ACHD could inflate its figures and persuade the ITD to deflate its own.)

Neighbors in the Old Penitentiary Historic District, such as the Idaho Commission on the Arts and the Idaho Botanical Garden, have also expressed their categorical opposition to the plan, which will, incidentally, uproot some of the flowering apple trees on Old Penitentiary Road and install four 110- to 240-foot splitter islands at the intersection.

Recently, when a Boise resident returned from the East Coast and wrote ACHD about concerns discovered with roundabouts there, which had greater traffic on one axis than the other such as Warm Springs Avenue, he received a letter of reassurance from the project director accompanied by photographs of a signalized roundabout as the solution.

Two weeks ago, the same ACHD project director announced that "if public sentiment has changed, it is unfortunate because tax dollars will have been spent for not [naught]"--the same tortured logic that explains why some stay to the very last frame of a wretched movie.

In short, there are less wasteful, less destructive and disruptive alternatives to address the entrance at Granite Way: curbs, sidewalks, bulb-outs. It's time that ACHD embrace a more transparent and flexible approach--hearing counter-considerations from resident-taxpayers, even if and when it means the district relinquish so-called "obligated" funds. It's a bit like trying to turn a supertanker, or like stopping a tank in Tiananmen Square, no doubt, but a letter to board president Carol McKee, in whose sub-district the proposal lies, is the place to begin.

Cort Conley drives Warm Springs Avenue twice a day and deeply appreciates its character and characters.