Traffic roundabouts are the hip new thing in the traffic world. Arlington’s got a few. Loudoun County is enjoying its new one at Route 50 and Route 15. Now Herndon wants to put one in, but in a slightly odd location on Dranesville Road, and the neighbors seem almost unanimously opposed. Herndon town council is going to hold a public meeting Tuesday night to discuss it and vote, again.
That’s the other odd thing: The council decided to install this somewhat major traffic device without a public hearing. In July, the town informed residents near the intersection of Dranesville Road and Park Avenue, which is really more of a curve in the road than an intersection, that it was looking at some traffic calming measures there, just south of Herndon Parkway and Herndon High School. And then, in a work session in October, the council made its decision for a roundabout without any further public input. The move is legal — it’s technically only a road improvement and doesn’t require anyone’s land or a new ordinance — but shocking to those who live nearby.
And the people who live there, most of them for decades, say the thing simply isn’t needed.
A traffic study by the town shows that about 8,000 cars pass along the curve during an average weekday. It’s well engineered and easy to take at excessive speed. (The teenaged Tommy Jackman took it at an excessive speed approximately 8,000 times.) So you’d think the neighbors would have had plenty of cars in their front yards, smashed up mailboxes and wild patterns of skid marks all over the place.
But the statistics, and decades of experience, say otherwise.
View Larger Map
“It’s an attempt to address a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Chuck Newell, whose family has been at the intersection of Dranesville and Park for 32 years. “The number of accidents is somewhat mythical. The police reports indicate that since 2001, there have been 14.” And at the October work session where the council approved the roundabout, traffic consultant Charlie O’Connell of VHB Inc. said he “did not observe a major speeding problem at this intersection,” the meeting minutes show.
Herndon officials have presented higher accident numbers for the intersection/curve (there are no traffic lights or stop signs), but Newell looked at the police reports and found many of the wrecks were several blocks away. Most of the accidents at Dranesville and Park were low-speed fender benders. One involved a parked car having its rear-view mirror sideswiped. The only fatal crash occurred in November of last year, after the council had already approved the roundabout.
Newell and other neighbors attended Herndon’s first meeting about the proposed roundabout in the summer, and said they were told that they would be consulted again. Instead, they read on Herndon Patch.com in October that it was a done deal.
Newell did his homework on roundabouts, and found they work well in the right situations — four-way intersections with medians, plenty of room and plenty of lighting. On Dranesville Road, a 90-foot roundabout would barely fit into the present curve, and Newell and others suspect it would require regrading of his front yard, which would take down four large maple and pine trees.
It would also bring bright new lights to the neighborhood at all times, which would be a shock to the senses. And in my hours spent roaming the area, it’s surprisingly serene for being along a four-lane thoroughfare, in large part because Herndon Parkway diverts much of what once headed south into downtown Herndon.
Town Manager Art Anselene said citizens have been requesting some traffic calming at the intersection/curve for several years, and there is a plan to narrow Dranesville Road from four lanes to two on the stretch south of Herndon Parkway. He said a roundabout would make it easier for those who want to turn left from southbound Dranesville Road to head toward Herndon Elementary, by driving around the roundabout.
He said the roundabout would cost about $235,000. Simply installing medians, another option proposed by the traffic consultant, would cost $100,000 less.
Anselene noted that the intersection/curve doesn’t affect just the neighbors, it also affects the 8,000 vehicles driving through each day. He said he thought the issue had been well known to the neighbors, and that there was no legal requirement to have a public hearing or vote.
Council member Connie Hutchinson said the intersection/curve needed some calming, but “residents didn’t really have an opportunity to express their opinions. It was understood [in the summer] that there would be follow-up with the residents. And unfortunately, I’m not sure that ever happened.”
So Mayor Steve DeBenedittis placed the matter on Tuesday night’s agenda. Hutchinson said she’s studied the roundabout, and doesn’t think it’s a good idea. “A lot of school buses go through that intersection,” from both the elementary and high school, “and I just think that’s going to be really hard for buses to navigate.”
Traffic flows pretty easily through the intersection/curve now. A roundabout would certainly change that drastically. “It’s going to stop,” neighbor Kevin Aiken said. “Cars are going to line up on Dranesville Road. Right now, traffic’s fine. Nearly everyone here in this immediate area is against it.”
Joseph Francis, who’s lived near the intersection/curve since 1970, said over the years “most of the crashes had common ingredients: speed, immature drivers, substance abuse. These are ingredients that, in retrospect, do not lend themselves to road realignments for resolution.”
Newell, probably the closest resident to the intersection/curve, said, “If it was truly an asset and added safety, we could bite the bullet and accept it. But given that it’s invasive and unnecessary, it is just devastating to us.”