After months of shifting detours Binkley Street is completely open.
Drivers can turn off the Sterling Highway onto South Binkley Street and commute to the intersection of North Binkley Street and Marydale Avenue without interruption for the first time since late May.
“There are no more planned closures or detours this season,” said Soldotna City Engineer Kyle Kornelis. “It might take some time for everybody to become accustomed to the roundabouts, which is normal.”
The Binkley Street Improvement project was the first comprehensive rehabilitation to the road in three decades. The installation of three mini-roundabouts was included in the project for the busiest intersections- Wilson Lane, Redoubt Avenue and Marydale Avenue.
Traffic analysis showed the outlets were near capacity, and with the population and tourism projected to increase in the city, wait times were expected to only get worse.The project was carried out in three phases, and the roundabouts were by far the most controversial aspect. of the street’s rehabilitation.
The approach made the process as minimally invasive as possible, said city council member Meggean Bos.
In a Jan. 7 letter to city clerk Soldotna resident Seymour Marvin Mills, said he was against the roundabouts because “they would steal property and are designed for more populated areas.”
The public response was mixed when the roundabouts were brought up initially, Bos said. A proactive approach to education from the city could have eased confusion at the start of the process, she said.
Typically public support grows at the project progress, according to a study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Before construction of a roundabout, public support ranges from 22 percent to 44 percent, according to the study. But in the months following construction, drivers learn to appreciate the intersections- with the roundabouts having about 87 percent approval after a year of use, according to the study.
During a July 9 council meeting Bos requested that city administration find a way to familiarize people with the roundabouts.
She said she saw the public most frequently asking why the roundabouts were being installed and why the city is “wasting the money on this?”
The Public Works Department has maintained a website on the status of summer construction projects since construction began on May 5, but by mid-summer a webpage was launched that exclusively provided updates on the Binkley Street Improvements. It includes detour maps, road closures, how to use roundabouts and the history of the project.
Kornelis and Frey worked with store owners in the area to ensure people had access to facilities along Binkley Street during business hours.
“During this entire huge construction event I did not receive one irate phone call from anyone in regards to this construction,” said City Manager Mark Dixson. “I did receive some phone calls and they were very professional, and really that says a lot for the proactive approach the Public Works Department took to bringing in roundabouts that had a lot of opposition.”
The Binkley Street improvements were funded fully by State of Alaska grants. The only money that came from Soldotna was for the 8’ lift station replacement and upgrades- a cost that was split with the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
The sewer collection lift station at the intersection of Corral Avenue and Binkley Street will be decommissioned, replaced with an upgraded system and an insulated, stand-by generator will be installed to maintain pump flow when the area has a power outage, said city engineer Kyle Kornelis in a previous Clarion interview.
Soldotna will be contributing half of the $115,000 to the upgraded lift station costs, while the borough will contribute up to $115,000 more, according to a memo from Kornelis.
The Binkley Street Road Rehabilitation Construction cost the state $3.45 million, according to an April 16 memo from project manager Frey. Peninsula Construction, Inc., was awarded the contract for the project as they came in as the lowest bidder.
Grants from the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, requiring no local match, funded the project according to the memo. The grant money covered crosswalks, landscaping, upgrades to storm drains, and pothole and sinkhole repairs.
In 2001, discussion of using roundabouts to ease traffic congestion was brought up during a city council meeting. Traffic forecasts at the time showed an increase of 50 percent over the next 20 years.
Soldotna’s city planners weren’t the only ones consider the non-traditional intersections- Alaska’s first roundabouts were built in Juneau and Anchorage in the same year.
By 2011 the state had 16 roundabouts including one at the entrance to Denali National Park, according to the Alaska Department of Public Transportation and Public Facilities website.
The administration lists roundabouts as one of the most effective intersections for reducing fatalities and serious injuries, according to their website.
In addition, roundabouts are proven to be safer for pedestrians and drivers, said Soldotna Mayor Nels Anderson in a previous Clarion interview. Traffic can move safely through the intersection of a roundabout at a higher volume than a four-way stop, he said.
Roundabouts save money because no extra equipment is required operate the intersection, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The intersections are generally quieter and aesthetically pleasing, according to the administration.
“Pedestrians and bicyclists have far less risk navigating roundabouts than the typical intersections primarily because of the lower speeds,” according to the Federal Highway Administration. “There are also less conflict points, the according distance is usually much shorter and there is oftentimes a refuge spot in the splitter island.”
While construction is finished for the season, and the roundabouts are functional, the project is still incomplete, Frey said. Work will be finished next spring, he said.
Workers will install a new sewer lift station at the intersection of Corral Avenue and Binkley Street. Then the intersection of Corral Avenue will be repaved.
Meanwhile, the city continues to watch the new traffic patterns resulting from the installation of the new intersections, and will make adjustments as necessary, Kornelis said.
The Department of Transportation is monitoring the implementation of the mini roundabouts, Kornelis said.
The city is looking to the DOT for recommendations based on its experience with cities transitioning to the new intersections.
The roundabouts have been working, Dixson said. But they haven’t been working as well as the city would like them to work. Project managers are considering adding more signs at each intersection.
Council member Pete Sprague said he watched a driver go the wrong way through a roundabout, in a previous Clarion interview.
Anderson said the studies he has seen suggest safety and traffic flow are improved with the installation of roundabouts once people know how to use them.
“A roundabout is just a very different intersection than a four way stop,” Kornelis said. “The most important thing I can convey right now is to slow down, drive courteously, and yield when necessary.”
Reach Kelly Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org