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During the holidays Diane Thompson walks from her home to the hill facing the intersection of Centerville and News roads, which she adorns with an inflatable Santa Claus and snowman.
But since she learned the Virginia Department of Transportation may ease onto her property to install a roundabout at the intersection, Thompson said she is considering adding another decoration to the hill – a banner expressing her opposition to the project.
“We’re looking bad no matter what we do,” Thompson said of the roundabout and the alternative, a traffic signal. “I just feel betrayed.”
Thompson said she only found out a month or two ago about the proposed roundabout, which became VDOT’s preferred configuration after the James City County Board of Supervisors asked VDOT to enhance safety at the intersection.
Many residents who came out to an informal public hearing on the project Wednesday afternoon also said they had little notice of the proposal, some learning about it when they saw VDOT signs along Centerville Road.
There is currently one lane of traffic in each direction at the intersection. The turn onto News Road connects commuters to Monticello Avenue and Ironbound Road.
Board Chairman Michael Hipple (Powhatan) said he was “caught off guard” and did not know about the roundabout until he started receiving calls from concerned citizens. He said he was not on the board when the request was made to look at safety measures, specifically adding turn lanes.
“It really irritates me that citizens in my district are being told this is what we as a board wanted. That’s not true,” Hipple said. “What we wanted was to check the safety issues of the road from the concerned citizens, who said someone could get killed or hit at that intersection.”
According to VDOT, 11 car crashes occurred at the intersection from Jan. 1, 2010 to June 30, 2015 , but none share a major contributing factor.
Project Manager Brandon Harrison said a warrant analysis of the intersection began in the summer of 2014 to determine if a stop sign and turn lanes were enough to improve safety or if more needed to be done.
VDOT Traffic Engineer Rob Weber said he counted traffic and reviewed the history of accidents at the intersection to determine if it met the threshold of need for a traffic signal.
With his finding that the intersection’s conditions warranted a signal, a VDOT-required feasibility study was conducted to see if a roundabout could be an appropriate alternative.
VDOT found that not only would a roundabout be safer – travel speeds through a roundabout are typically less than 30 miles per hour – but that it would require less right-of-way to be taken from nearby properties and would cost $510,000 less than building turn lanes and a traffic signal.
“It’s better operationally, it’s safer due to the lower speed and it’s less money,” Harrison said. “We’re definitely proposing this because we think it’s the best alternative.”
Some residents were completely opposed to any modification to the intersection, suggesting that simply “shaving” the hill would improve visibility and safety. Others, like Ronald Spivey, said there is a need because residential development in rural areas have made traffic worse over the past 25 years.
“Something has to be done because the traffic is getting too busy,” said Spivey, who lives on News Road in the fifth house down from the intersection.
Thompson suggested the number of schools that depend on Centerville Road as a main thoroughfare, including all three high schools and many elementary schools, have also contributed to the traffic.
One of the goals of the public hearing was to inform the public about how roundabouts work, as there are no roundabouts on secondary roads in James City County and some residents may have never driven through them before, Harrison said.
Residents could watch a video that showed examples of roundabouts in action, while a computer screen showed a simulation of how a roundabout on Centerville Road at News Road could function.
“There’s not any in the area, so it’s a familiarization factor,” Harrison said in response to resident resistance to a roundabout. “This will open up the discussion. It’s in their head, they’re thinking about it now and we have to see what’s going to happen.”
Hipple said he would have preferred a more formal public hearing, where VDOT representatives could have given a presentation and then invited residents to view informational materials and ask questions.
While he said he believes roundabouts work as an intersection configuration, he said he did not believe it would be a good fit for Centerville Road at News Road.
“It’s still a rural area in the county, with everything from tractors and trailers hauling hay around to the Thompson’s concern with [the roundabout] in their front yard,” Hipple said. “I think this is not a change that is needed.”
The total cost of the project is estimated to cost about $2.4 million and will be mostly paid for using funds awarded to the county from the Federal Highway Administration’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) Program.
At the conclusion of the public comment period, VDOT will review all comments and adjust its proposal as necessary before bringing it before the Board of Supervisors next year. Work is expected to begin in June 2017 and conclude the following summer.
Residents who were not able to attend the public hearing can submit their comments orally or in writing to VDOT until Dec. 28. Written comments should be addressed to Mr. Brandon Harrison, P.E., Project Manager, Virginia Department of Transportation, 1700 North Main Street, Suffolk, Va., 23434.
Comments may also be emailed to Brandon.Harrison@VDOT.Virginia.gov with the subject line “Centerville Road at News Road Public Hearing Comment.”