Traffic Delays Mean Cleaner Air, Safer Commutes

Work has begun on a roundabout at Farmersville Blvd. and Noble Ave. Nancy Vigran/Valley Voice
Work has begun on a roundabout at Farmersville Blvd. and Noble Ave. Nancy Vigran/Valley Voice

Tulare County residents will be driving more like their European counterparts next spring, when a trio of roundabouts now under construction make their debuts in Farmersville and Woodlake.

In Woodlake, drivers can expect delays through the autumn and winter months at Naranjo Boulevard and Valencia Avenue while work continues at the city’s busiest intersection. Construction should be complete in time for the city’s biggest event, the Woodlake Lions Rodeo held annually during the Mother’s Day weekend.

“You’ll see a finished product in March or April,” said Woodlake City Manager Ramon Lara of the $4.7 million project. “It’s a complete rebuild of the intersection.”

Measure R Funds at Work

When the work is complete, Woodlake’s busiest crossroads will have undergone a total makeover, with new lighting, curbs, gutters, sidewalks and landscaping. It’s an accomplishment Lara said the city could not attempt without the aid of taxpayers countywide, who voted in Measure R, a half-cent sales tax earmarked to pay for improvements to Tulare County’s roads, in 2006.

The projects, however, are not intended just to improve traffic flow. Most of the money for construction came from the Federal Highway Administration’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Improvement Program, which paid for the project in an effort to help reduce auto emissions from idling cars waiting their turn to cross.

“This is the biggest intersection here in Woodlake. We’d get some buildup,”

Lara said. “If it wasn’t for being able to get CMAQ funding, which is paying for 88%, and Measure R matching funds, the city would never have been able to fund the project.”

The intersection will remain open during construction, but drivers should expect delays.

Following the Money

Critics of the roundabouts question why Measure R funds have been used for these projects when many existing roads are in need of repair. The answer may lay in how Measure R funds are shared.

Jason Waters, Woodlake’s Community Services director and former employee of the Tulare County Association of Governments, which administers the Measure R funds, said each city receives a portion of Measure R money it may spend as it will, meaning how the cash is ultimately used is up to the many local councils that receive it.

“A portion of the revenue goes to cities to use for local stuff,” Waters said. “Measure R funds can be used for maintenance.”

That doesn’t mean it’s always the best way to use them. In the case of the Woodlake and Farmersville projects, Measure R money was used to provide the local portion of the roundabouts’ cost so the cities could receive the much more generous federal grants. Of the revenue collected under Measure R, 35% goes to local programs.

Driving For Safety

A rendering of the under construction Woodlake roundabout. Rendering courtesy Quad Knopf.
A rendering of the under construction Woodlake roundabout. Rendering courtesy Quad Knopf.

Drivers can expect a bigger impact to their commute during the construction in Farmersville, where a pair of roundabouts will make navigating the difficult interchanges on Noble Avenue at Farmersville Boulevard and at State Route 198 easier and less dangerous.

“It’s under construction as we speak,” said Farmersville City Manager John Jansons. “It’s being treated as one project, but it’s really two.”

Here, the emphasis is on safety. Drivers exiting the 198 from the west are faced with entering traffic on Noble, where eastbound vehicles are hidden by a curve in the road that puts them in drivers’ blind spots. Exacerbating the situation is the new slew of businesses that have been constructed in the island between Noble and the highway in recent years. Drivers face a similar problem when merging south onto Farmersville Boulevard from Noble, where cross-traffic can come swiftly across the highway overpass to the north. The roundabouts should reduce collisions at both locations.

The cost savings gained by constructing roundabouts instead of switching to traffic signals is significant. The price tag for both roundabouts in the Farmersville project is estimated to be $5 million. A more traditional solution would have demanded closer to $30 million, without the added benefit of reducing pollution from cars as they wait for the lights to change. It should be complete next year, but could have been a much longer time coming.

“It’ll be completed sometime in 2016,” Jansons said. “The city has been moved up on the list, so to speak. It was a matter of TCAG trying to deliver traffic projects to smaller communities.”

Construction there began August 10.

Driving In Circles

When the first roundabouts were proposed for Tulare County, in Visalia and Lindsay, concern was raised that drivers unfamiliar with the European-style exchanges would have trouble navigating them. So far, reality has not borne that out.

In Visalia, a roundabout at the point where Houston Avenue, Santa Fe Street and two other roads converge has eased traffic backup there, and drivers seem to have no more difficulty making their way through than their overseas counterparts do. Fender-benders are no longer a common sight there.

The roundabout at Elmwood Avenue and Hermosa Street in Lindsay has become a central feature of that city’s downtown, contributing to its revitalization. There, the design allowed easy access to businesses in a busy but narrow intersection, while keeping the area pedestrian-friendly.

Clearing the Air

Statistics back up the notion the unusual intersections improve safety for everyone on the roads. According to the Federal Highway Administration, traffic collisions are 76% less likely at roundabouts, while fatalities are reduced by a whopping 90%. Pedestrians are 40% less likely to be hit while crossing at a roundabout, and vehicles that pass through them spend 18 seconds less crossing than they do at traditionally controlled intersections.

That 18-second reduction may sound small, but when that factor is multiplied by the number of vehicles using the roundabouts the impact grows significantly. According to the California Environmental Protection Agency, mobile sources of air pollution — mainly trucks, cars and buses — accounted for 29.7% of pollutants in the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District.

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