The smooth hard sell on a highway roundabout was going just fine Tuesday night, until the charts and graphs of the traffic engineers got swept aside in a tornado of indignation swirling around one unhappy property owner.
A bevy of engineers from the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) hosted the public hearing to convince residents that a roundabout at Highway 87 and the intersections of Airport and Airline roads would move traffic much more smoothly and trigger far fewer accidents than a conventional stoplight.
The engineers cited studies of signals converted to roundabouts that resulted in a 40 percent reduction in all accidents, an 80 percent drop in injury accidents, a 90 percent drop in fatal accidents and a 30 percent drop in accidents involving pedestrians and bikes. At the same time, the conversion to roundabouts reduced traffic delays by 75 percent.
The Payson Town Council has already unanimously approved ADOT's plan to cope with traffic congestion on the highway by building a $1.2 million roundabout, including about $390,000 from Payson. In theory, the roundabout could be in operation by 2009.
Just when it seemed an initially skeptical crowd of maybe 20 residents had been lulled by an array of statistics and designs showing how a double-trailered semi truck could go through the proposed 200-foot diameter roundabout side by side with a nervous Honda, property owner Joe Soldevere stood to blast both ADOT and the town staff.
Soldevere owns the vacant parcel fronting the highway north of Airport Road. ADOT would have to buy the entire parcel. The proposed roundabout has made it impossible for Soldevere to sell the parcel of land for some 18 months.
He said despite his requests for information, no one contacted him about the various public meetings at which the roundabout has been discussed.
Soldevere said he'd gotten "the runaround on the roundabout."
He said "I know the real issue here is public safety and I don't want that on my conscience" by fighting the roundabout. "But I have a $500,000 piece of property that just had the snot knocked out of it. I've been rendered non-buildable and non-useable. So how about calling me, since I'm the one getting clobbered."
He said he has ended up in court seven times in the past fighting ADOT condemnation of his property. In one case, he said a judge upped ADOT's $35,000 offer to $450,000 and he called the state's negotiating stance "criminal."
The ADOT officials conducting the meeting then asked Soldevere to sit down and speak to the right of way specialist later. "We're not going to have ADOT called criminals," said one official.
ADOT consultant Scott Richie said roundabouts have made a big comeback in recent years. After studying the success of roundabouts elsewhere, American traffic engineers have embraced the new design.
The modern roundabout uses bends in the road and islands to slow down all traffic entering the roundabout to about 25 miles an hour. The cars then have dramatically fewer "conflict points."
Roundabouts eliminate the often-fatal t-bone collision between cars going 50 miles an hour at intersections with signals, said ADOT engineers.
Richie said three years ago Prescott converted a signal to a roundabout a little larger than the one proposed for Highway 87. In the three years before the change over, the intersection was the site of 24 injury accidents. In the three years since the shift, not a single injury accident occurred. But two people have died at the next stoplight down the road.
The proposed roundabout will probably include crosswalks that will light up whenever someone steps on a pad built into each end. Pedestrians will have to cross 30 feet of pavement before reaching a divider the engineers called a "refuge," then cross another 30 feet of pavement. In a signalized intersection, pedestrians cross 200 feet of pavement.
Engineers faced some skeptical questioning.
Ned Hines said that roundabouts work beautifully in Australia, but they're much bigger there and drivers know how to handle them.
"From what you're saying, every intersection should have a roundabout."
"Well," said Alvin Stump, "you'd have more effective traffic flow."
Other residents worried the roundabout would produce a constant flow of traffic, which means that people trying to turn onto the highway during the busy season wouldn't have breaks in the traffic during which they can make a left turn onto the road.
Richie said the roundabout slows and sorts traffic, which means the gaps downstream would be more frequent but shorter. "Besides, when there's heavy volume on the highway, you're not going to turn left anyway," said Stump.
"Oh, that's just garbage," muttered one resident sitting in the audience.
"It's like us going to the metric system -- that didn't work," said Hines.
ADOT engineers said the hundreds of roundabouts already in place nationwide have demonstrated that American drivers can adapt readily and the geometry of the intersections will produce a big decline in accidents.
"So we in Payson pay the price to educate everyone else in Arizona about roundabouts," said Hines.
However, Stirling Smith, a retired police officer and 16-year Payson resident, concluded. "The roundabout, not the traffic circle, is safe and effective. I recommend we install this roundabout."