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New round tonight in roundabout debate

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There will be no shortage of numbers to consider when Albuquerque city councilors meet tonight to debate — once again — building a roundabout at Rio Grande and Candelaria.

Engineers have calculated the intersection’s crash rate, the severity of the crashes and, in 2008, compiled a lengthy report on traffic flow, speeds and other information.

This little roundabout has triggered a big debate, with recent hearings attracting hundreds of residents or overflow crowds. Each side finds justification among the data released over the years.

An opponent of the roundabout might look at the information and see this: A relatively safe intersection that’s been getting safer.

A roundabout supporter, on the other hand, could examine the numbers and say: The intersection’s crash rate is higher than similarly busy intersections, and roundabouts reduce severe accidents.

Two competing bills are before the council tonight — one by Roxanna Meyers, who wants to halt plans for the roundabout, and the other by Isaac Benton, who wants to continue the discussion for another year. It’s not clear what would happen if neither bill wins approval, though the city administration previously has said it would abide by Meyers’ wishes because she is the councilor for that district.

The council meeting is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m., and councilors typically accept public comment on bills up for final action. Each speaker is usually limited to two minutes.

Meyers noted that the “severity index” — a measure of how bad the crashes at the intersection were — is on the decline, from an index of .45 in the 2004-06 period to .29 from 2007-11. The change could be the result of safety measures already enacted at Rio Grande and Candelaria, such as re-striping and speed signs that show drivers how fast they’re going, she said.

A car waits to enter the roundabout at Central and Eighth, just west of Downtown. The City Council is considering a similar roundabout at the intersection of Rio Grande and Candelaria. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Journal)

A car waits to enter the roundabout at Central and Eighth, just west of Downtown. The City Council is considering a similar roundabout at the intersection of Rio Grande and Candelaria. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Journal)

“I really do think there are alternatives to the roundabout that are effective, less expensive and much-less controversial,” she said.

Benton, for his part, said there’s no reason to debate one statistic vs. another. State and federal officials examined the relevant data as part of a 2009 application for funds to build a roundabout, and they approved the money.

“That application was made and accepted as a statement of sorts that a problem does exist at the intersection,” Benton said.

Funding had been approved and the city planned to go forward with the roundabout until the project’s lead supporter, Debbie O’Malley, left the City Council after winning election to the County Commission last year. Mayor Richard Berry appointed a replacement, Meyers, who conducted an online poll showing opposition and now wants to stop the roundabout.

Pros and cons

The City Council has posted quite a bit of traffic data about the intersection on its Web page, cabq.gov/council. Here’s what some of the relevant reports say:

  • The intersection’s crash rate of 1.243 “per million entering vehicles” is the second highest among a group of six intersections with similar traffic volumes, according to data from 2007-2011 compiled by the University of New Mexico. On the other hand, the 1.243 crash rate is less than the 2.000 rate “that national studies have indicated (is) acceptable,” according to a report prepared by contractor Parsons Brinckerhoff.
  • The severity of the crashes that do occur at the intersection has declined and is now roughly in line with the rest of the city. The intersection had a .45 “severity index” from 2004-06, and it dropped to .29 from 2007-11. The citywide average was .28 from 2007-11.
  • Traffic volume at the intersection “indicates that acceptable operations could be achieved” with a single-lane roundabout, according to the Parsons Brinckerhoff study, which was done in 2008.

Generally speaking, traffic engineers say, roundabouts are attractive because they eliminate “T-bone” accidents. Each vehicle has to yield as it enters the roundabout at an angle.

But there can also be limits to how much traffic they have the capacity to handle, among other downsides. Signalized intersections, of course, also have limits.

“It’s a really complicated and convoluted discussion that has to happen about the pros and cons for a roundabout,” said David Mitchell, director of Bernalillo County’s operations and maintenance department.

Roundabouts can be expensive to install, though their operational costs are lower than traffic signals.

Phil Gallegos of the New Mexico Department of Transportation said his agency recently put in a roundabout at Roy and N.M. 313/Fourth Street.

“It’s really efficient if people slow down and play nice,” Gallegos said. But “it takes awhile for people to get adjusted to it.”

‘A bunch of flakes’

In this particular case, the council, under O’Malley, secured about $1 million in state and federal funds to help build the roundabout at Rio Grande and Candelaria. About $500,000 in city funds were also made available.

The city has spent some of the money on design. It’s not clear whether any grant money would have to be repaid if the project is halted at this point, city officials said.

Benton argues that, because the project is already in progress, it’s too late to “start nitpicking with these certain statistics,” unless a technical error is discovered. Reversing course now “makes the city of Albuquerque look like a bunch of flakes,” he said.

Benton’s bill calls for extra time to evaluate what to do. It mentions the city might have to repay about $150,000 in funding if the project is stopped. Benton said he doesn’t personally have an opinion yet on whether a roundabout is the best solution for the intersection. But “it is apparent that the discussion needs to continue,” he said.

Meyers, however, said the traffic numbers — particularly the severity index — simply don’t justify the expense of a roundabout, particularly because the numbers have improved.

“It’s pretty much consistent with every intersection,” she said. “It’s on par” with the rest of the city.

Her bill calls for removing the Rio Grande and Candelaria project from a regional transportation plan and declaring it city policy to pursue safety improvements there, but not a roundabout.

About $200,000 of the city’s $500,000 previously earmarked for the project would be made available for such improvements, under her bill. Meyers expects the $1 million in grants would be returned to the state or federal governments.

The disagreement over the roundabout comes as Benton and Meyers prepare to run against each other this fall. They’re now in the same council district because of how boundaries were redrawn after the U.S. Census, and both have said they intend to run in October.

Five other seats are also on the ballot this fall, meaning it could be a new batch of councilors who decide on the roundabout if Benton succeeds in continuing the debate until then.

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