Three years ago, Caltrans presented plans at a meeting in Lompoc for a roundabout, or traffic circle, on Highway 246 at the intersection with La Purisima Road just east of Lompoc. The idea was to slow traffic and eliminate deadly high-speed, broadside collisions.
From the beginning, the idea was opposed by some community leaders and residents. And now that the project is complete and open to motorists, it remains as controversial as ever.
Lompoc Mayor John Linn said he has opposed the idea from the first preliminary Caltrans meeting in 2008 and remains convinced that it was an expensive mistake, a case of a state agency imposing its bureaucratic will on a local community.
Caltrans, of course, views the project differently.
“It’s functioning well,” said Colin Jones, public affairs manager for Caltrans, District 5. “From our standpoint, I don’t know what more we can say, other than we addressed a major safety issue out there.”
In a letter to the editor published in the Lompoc Record on May 27, shortly after the roundabout was completed, Linn expressed his frustration: “Nothing worked. Caltrans wanted to build a roundabout and we got it. The roundabout we got is for 35 mph city streets without semi trucks,” he wrote. “Caltrans avoided all environmental review, violated greenhouse gas regulations, spent $3.4 million, and created a new traffic bottleneck.”
In the Santa Ynez Valley, Caltrans has designed a roundabout for the Highway 246 intersection with Highway 154, and the agency’s representatives were scheduled to be at a Solvang City Council meeting Monday night to discuss the project. Those discussions will be described in Thursday’s Santa Ynez Valley News.
The agency also has reviewed plans by Solvang that include the option of a smaller roundabout on Highway 246 at Alamo Pintado Road.
During construction of the Lompoc roundabout, which began early this year, there was evidence of about a dozen minor accidents at the site, including skid marks, signs of hurried braking and chipped curbs, according to the California Highway Patrol.
“A truck, a pickup, went right over the top (of the traffic circle’s center),” said CHP Officer Jeanne Malone.
CHP accident statistics show there have been no fatalities at the intersection of Highway 246 and La Purisima Road since 1998, which is as far as the records go, Malone said.
“There were fatalities on the roadway between that intersection and Lompoc and between that intersection and Buellton, but none related to that intersection,” she said.
The highest number of accidents at the intersection was nine in 2008, before Caltrans realigned the roadway, Malone said. The CHP recorded three accidents there in 2009 and again in 2010, and five in 2011, she said.
Linn said his dislike of the roundabout is not about safety, but that other, less expensive options were available, such as extending the stop sign on La Purisima Road toward Highway 246 to give motorists a better view of oncoming traffic.
“It cost $3.5 million. They had a $250,000 solution that would have done the same thing,” Linn said. “It was a stupid waste of money.”
Now, he said, highway traffic must slow from 55 mph to the 15 mph advised by Caltrans. The traffic circle is at the bottom of a hill, which means big trucks headed toward Buellton must climb the upgrade without a running start, tying up traffic and creating a pollution “hot spot,” Linn said.
“Caltrans does not listen. They’re going to do what they’re going to do and you might as well not waste your time,” Linn said.
“We’re married to it unless you take a bulldozer out there. We’re married to it, we’re married to it forever. It’s not going to go anywhere. It’s the proverbial done deal.”
Jones said Caltrans did what was needed to make the intersection safer and has had few complaints, except from Linn. He said the project cost $2.5 million.
“We chose the best alternative for that location. A roundabout physically forces you to slow down,” Jones said, adding that stop signs and traffic lights do not force motorists to slow down.
Roundabouts have become common throughout the nation, in urban and rural areas, Jones said.
Three roundabouts have been built on city streets in Santa Maria to slow traffic and keep it flowing — on Bradley off Betteravia; on College south of Betteravia; and at College and McCoy.
“They are a pain when no one knows they are there, but they do work,” said Lt. Rico Flores, who oversees the Santa Maria Police Department’s traffic operations.
Officer Malone said motorists’ difficulty with roundabouts stems from their unfamiliarity with the concept and the accompanying anxiety.
“We’re having issues because people don’t know how to use it,” she said. “It’s a European method of vehicle transportation. People in California aren’t really used to roundabouts. It’s a foreign concept to them.
“People stop in it. They don’t know what to do, so they let whole lines of cars go. People are lined up behind them.”
When confused motorists stop inside a roundabout, the situation can become more dangerous, Malone said.
But the rules governing the use of roundabouts by motorists are familiar ones, she said.
“It’s similar to merging onto a freeway. The vehicle already in the roundabout has the right of way. The vehicle merging into the roundabout has to yield to the vehicle already in the roundabout,” Malone said.
After presenting the Purisima Road project to the public, Caltrans held a meeting in Vandenberg Village to teach motorists how to use a roundabout, Malone said, but few people showed up.