Tri-City Herald: Roundabouts take practice; renovation may help

Some folks will be thrilled with the state Department of Transportation’s decision to remodel the roundabout at the Highway 240 exit and intersection of Steptoe and Columbia Park Trail.

The changes include cutting the number of lanes entering from either direction on Columbia Park Trail from two to one, and the addition of short curbs aimed at slowing traffic coming into the roundabout.

Frequent users, who have been forced to learn the rules of double-lane roundabout navigation in the past eight years, are likely to be frustrated by the changes, which may back traffic up on Columbia Park Trail. Infrequent users will likely still be befuddled.

Of the eight state-owned roundabouts in our region, the one at Steptoe has the highest rate of accidents at about 50 per year. And that doesn’t count all the near misses. If everyone is not following the rules or does not understand them, an accident is just a bumper away.

The biggest issue with the roundabout is the double lanes of traffic. A lot of people don’t seem to realize they have to yield to both lanes. The signs are pretty clear regarding which lanes exit at each point, but it’s just too much for some. Drivers can often be seen panicking, stopping mid-lane or cutting off a car that is correctly navigating the loop.

The curbs should help slow one of the major issues, which is eastbound cars entering from the 40 mph Columbia Park Trail at a higher speed.

Roundabout design has changed and state engineers have learned some lessons. Navigating any of the roundabouts in the Tri-Cities takes some practice and attention to detail. They’re all just a little bit different.

Kennewick, which has the most roundabouts of any city in the state, says it is happy with them. Judging from the number of broken fences and other tell-tale signs, there still are accidents in the areas of roundabouts.

But, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation, roundabouts bring a 90 percent reduction in fatality accidents and a 74 percent drop in injury accidents.

Design work will begin on the renovation of the Steptoe roundabout this summer and work on the $176,000 project will begin in spring 2016. The state is calling the modifications minor and says it won’t take long to complete the work.

After years of practice, many in our community have gotten the hang of the Steptoe roundabout, but improvements would help those who don’t use it frequently.