No thank you: Roundabout meeting showcases public objections

By: 
JENNY GESSAMAN
Reporter

Delphine Finkbeiner of Grass Range voices her dislike of roundabouts as Winnett’s Ralph Corbett looks toward the camera and MDT staff at Wednesday night’s meeting. Photo by Jenny Gessaman

Two hours in the Lewistown Community Center was not enough time or space for 183 Central Montanans to provide their comments on the Montana Department of Transportation’s Grass Range roundabout. Hosted by the Fergus County Commissioners, Wednesday night’s informational meeting filled the seats and lined the walls with interested citizens, most of whom were in opposition to a project that’s already gone to bid. Commissioner Carl Seilstad opened up the meeting with a welcome and an explanation: “MDT is going to give an overview of the project, and then we’re going to open it up for comments, one way or the other, because we want to get it documented what your comments are.” The project and its origins Several MDT staff attended the meeting, including Director Mike Tooley, but the evening’s presentation was given by Kirk Spalding, project manager and member of Sanderson Stewart, the Billings design firm that researched and engineered the roundabout. He started with a summary of the project’s timeline. MDT had flagged the intersection as problem, Spalding said, using in-house engineers to find a solution. The department’s staff came up with a roundabout. MDT then went to an independent firm, Sanderson Stewart, whose engineers reached the same conclusion. Spalding presented several slides showing his team’s research and evaluation process. Research and on-site work had shown no sight or congestion issues at the intersection, but did reveal a history of four fatalities and 12 injuries over the past 10 years. In addition, MDT had made several attempts to improve the intersection with rumble strips, flashing lights and increased and bigger signage. “What we concluded was it [the problem] was something extremely unusual,” he said. It was an unusual problem with severe consequences, according to Spalding. His firm identified high-speed, right-angle crashes as the most common accident, a kind of accident taken seriously by the traffic safety industry. “Right-angle crashes are the most severe we can deal with because it’s a T-bone,” he explained. “Either the passenger or the driver gets hit, so we want to avoid that.” Spalding’s team explored several options, including installing a traffic signal and converting the intersection into a four-way stop. Considering the effects MDT’s previous efforts had, the firm found one major flaw in a majority of the alternatives. “It doesn’t fix the behavior,” Spalding said. “Those who are familiar with this intersection have been largely the ones getting hit out here . . . We need something that puts the auspice in the driver’s hands to stay alert and be in control of their outcome.” The solution, according to Spalding, was a roundabout designed to meet the needs of the area’s personal and commercial traffic, including oversized, overweight loads. His reasoning was straightforward: create something that eliminated those high-speed, right-angle crashes. “The thing about a roundabout is it does make people go at an angle, and if they do make contact, it’s a harmless sideswipe,” he said. He explained how the circular intersection forces slow speeds. “The tighter the geometry [the circle], the slower people will go, the more safety benefit will be realized,” he said. Later in the meeting, he candidly summed up his firm’s reasoning in a response to public comment. “It gets to a point were we need to control the motorists, and we can control them geometrically with the roundabout,” he said. Blindsided and budget fearing While Spalding’s presentation took roughly 40 minutes, public questions and comments took almost an hour and a half. A majority of the comments were opposed to the project, with two main objections: cost and public input. Tooley reported the project’s total cost, including things such as rerouting irrigation and right-of-way acquisition, was estimated at $3.2 million. Several people, including Winnett’s Mark Weller, used their comments to suggest cheaper alternatives. “Why not put a speed limit down to 45 for the north to south [traffic] to slow down?” he asked. “It’s got to be a heck of a lot cheaper.” Lewistown’s Tom St. John suggested trying several smaller and cheaper adjustments, such as changing the yellow bulbs to red, before turning to a large-scale solution. “I think everyone in this room is concerned with the finances of this thing,” he said. The night’s crowd also included five state legislators, whose budget concerns were matched only by their public input concerns. “I don’t think MDT has listened to the public enough on this issue,” said Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta. Rep. Dan Bartel, R-Lewistown, is the elected official for Grass Range’s House District 29. He said he was pushed to attend the meeting by the number of comments he received since the legislative session’s Jan. 2 start. “I’m pushing 300 people that have contacted me in the last couple weeks,” he said, adding commissioners from seven different counties also reached out to him. Almost all of the comments Bartel heard were against the project. “I think that’s a huge decision making [thing], when the locals don’t want something,” he said. The public in attendance agreed, adding they felt they weren’t being listened to. Many people also felt the project was a surprise, with several commenters stating they weren’t aware of the roundabout until late last year. Larry Brittney of Oakley Ranch asked if there had been additional meetings seeking public comments after the MDT’s 2014 public meeting in Grass Range. Department staff stated there had been just the one, where people gave “overwhelming support.” Brittney, like many in the room, felt that had not been enough. “The reason we’re here is we were blindsided,” he said, referring to the room. “We didn’t know about this.” Some people did voice support for the project, including Grass Range’s Jennifer Saunders, who had been among the emergency responders on three of the intersection’s four fatal crashes. “When you look at $3.2 million, I look at four lives, one of whom was a child, and I looked at my own kids, who drove that intersection, and I held my breath,” she said. “I drive that intersection twice a day because I work in town. I pay attention every day, because I know how dangerous that intersection is.” Commissioner Seilstad, leader of the meeting, had to reign in the room several times. “Let’s try and keep this meeting civil,” he said, pointing out the MDT and congressional leaders in the room that were listening to public comment. By the end of the night, MDT Director Mike Tooley promised to take what he had heard into consideration. “I’m going to take this feedback here, but I’ve got to take other things into consideration, including that I have four people dead,” he said, later adding, “If we fail to act, I’m responsible as a human being, so I take this very seriously. I came here tonight because I want to hear from you.”

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