Tuesday, May 5, 2009

“Roundabout” Way of Getting To The Airport

It came close to being a roundabout at the entrance to Roanoke Regional Airport between Thirlane and the Towne Square shopping center. Councilwoman Gwen Mason was ready to give the go-ahead for the “roundabout.” Then it stalled with a “what about” connecting one way to Aviation Drive.

City Administration held a meeting with local businesses on the idea of closing Thirlane Road as preferred by the Airport Commission. It didn’t go over so well. CCS Medical and Howard Johnson’s had major concerns along with 5-6 Realtors who have leased property – “they objected strongly,” said City Manager, Darlene Burcham.

The cost of a traffic light versus a two lane roundabout “is a wash,” said Mark Jamison, traffic engineer. The concern is a 2 lane roundabout versus a 1 lane roundabout. Jamison thought residents who are not used to a roundabout in Roanoke would be confused. He feared traffic would queue up back into Sams and Kroker with everyone using the outside lane for fear of missing one of 5 exits. It will get more discussion at the next Council meeting briefing on May 18.

Back in September 2008 the Airport Commission held their joint meeting with City Council and talked extensively about the airport entrance. The article follows below. Then at another briefing this year Council tossed it to the City Manager to find out how closing Thirlane would go over with the businesses. We have come “full circle.” City Council is stuck in the “roundabout” – can’t get RIGHT (as Chevy Chase said in European Vacation). The Griswalds spent a whole day going “roundabout.” Council however is taking years.

Airport Commission’s Solution To Entrance Is “Roundabout”
September 3, 2008
Though there were multiple topics on the agenda at Tuesday’s noon lunch meeting with the Roanoke Airport Commission, most of the time revolved around reconfiguration of the entrance to the airport at Thirlane Road and Town Square.

Roanoke Airport Commission members present were Dr. John Dooley, Vic Stewart, Granger MacFarlane, “Fuzzy” Minnix, and James Turner, Jr., Chairman. Council member Anita Price was absent and Alvin Nash arrived later.

Mr. Turner stressed that the airport is the gateway to Roanoke and it needs to be easy to use, easily marked, and aesthetically pleasing. He introduced Tim White with Kimley-Horn and Associates, Inc., to present their study as sponsored by the Roanoke Airport Commission.

The presentation included 3 options: “No-Build” with only signage improvements, Roanoke City’s Concept proposed by the Traffic Department which included lane widening and traffic lights, and a third option of a “roundabout” which was the primary focus of the presentation.

Mr. White began the presentation saying that there had been a 20% increase in Thirlane traffic due to the new call centers and 87% of traffic exited onto Hershberger Road. The desired effect was to reduce confusion and promote good traffic operation.

The roundabout would be 2 lanes with 5 legs and that with this plan there would be no queuing impact. Mr. White said, “while the City’s Concept has merits … it does not provide exclusive access to the airport”. Roundabouts reduce speed and delays by 75% providing a continuous flow even when the electricity goes out. An added bonus would be that visitors first impression would be a visually attractive landscaped roundabout. A national study by the insurance industry showed a 27% decrease in crashes, a 51% decrease in injuries, and a 29% decrease in property damage with roundabouts.

Vice-Mayor Sherman Lea said that, “it seemed the biggest benefit was safety.” Ms. Burcham, the City Manager, responded saying that accidents in that area have not been an issue.

Mr. White added that trucks have a harder time maneuvering roundabouts but a larger one would be easier to negotiate. According to Mr. White’s study about 1.6% of the traffic at Thirlane is truck related.

Mr. White added that Public opinion is usually negative at first then turns positive over time. To that Mr. Minnix said, “don’t sell the Virginia drivers short … we’re as smart as the French aren’t we?”

Darlene Burcham said we do want to do away with confusion and no one supports the “no build” option. She said that the City does not have the funding available and that they would have to resell the concept to the retailers again.

The Manager of Transportation said roundabouts run from 700,000 dollars to $1.5 million and the city was planning for roundabouts at 13th St and Hollins Road, and another at Riverland Road and Mt. Pleasant at up to $3 million each. He added that it is very difficult to compare the cost of one roundabout to another.

Granger MacFarlane said “you will be connecting two retail areas … retail will rank it higher when they are asked to pitch in additional money if you relate it to improved traffic and increased sales.” Mr. MacFarlane also wanted to see a crosswalk to the terminal considered. He stated that, “when we [Airport Commission] deed over the land we want to make sure we get something of long standing for it.” Part of the City’s concept requires some land owned by the Airport.

Dr. Dooley said the airport was very important to Virginia Tech and we want to “invest right the first time”. There is an opportunity for a signature investment that makes a statement to first time visitors.

The City Manager asked, “what is the commission willing to give toward the project?”

Mr. Turner wanted to know first if they were moving toward a roundabout and to get feedback from the retailers. Granger Macfarlane asked, “what are you expecting … money or land?” To which Ms. Burcham answered “whatever you are willing to put on the table.”

The discussion ended after back and forth exchanges over cost sharing, conflicting designs, and hesitation on asking the retailers who had lost interest over the years. Ms. Burcham was hesitant to go to retailers with a loosely defined project in hand only to hit a wall of retailer skepticism.





Posted By Valerie Garner

Categories: Finance, Roanoke City Politics

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