North Shore residents are abuzz over whether to construct roundabouts or traffic signals when the Commercial Core Improvement Project in downtown Kings Beach breaks ground next year.

They will have a chance to learn more about the choice this evening at an open house at the North Tahoe Conference Center.

The project alternatives call for either roundabouts or traffic signals at the intersections of Highway 28 with Bear and Coon streets. But Kings Beach residents, who will be the major voice in deciding what is built, are still split over the choices.

Individuals and groups associated with or interested in the project say safety and traffic flow are the primary factors in the decision, said Program Manager David Polivy of the Sierra Business Council.

“The majority of responses have indicated that slowing down the vehicles and improving pedestrian safety should be the No. 1 goals of this project,” Polivy said.

Scott Ritchie, a consultant who specializes in roundabouts, believes that roundabouts are the safest intersections available today.

“Statistically, roundabouts provide a 90 percent reduction in fatalities, an 80 percent reduction in injury accidents, and a 40 percent reduction in overall accidents,” he said.

The geometry of a roundabout forces drivers to slow down before they enter the intersection, creating slower traffic, said Ritchie.

Dan Wilkins, the director of public works and engineering for the Town of Truckee, said accidents at Truckee intersections have dropped since the town built several roundabouts.

“The accidents we do see are typically of lower severity,” said Wilkins, who noted that most accidents are sideswipe incidents rather than head-on collisions.

Realtor June Landreville of North Shore Realty in Kings Beach, expressed concern about the public’s lack of familiarity with the roundabouts.

“People will be driving on the backstreets to avoid them,” said Landreville, who thought that roundabouts would work better in a larger community than Kings Beach.

Pedestrian safety is another concern in the debate between signals or roundabouts. Traffic lights force vehicles to come to a complete stop before pedestrians can cross the road, said Ken Grehm, director of public works for Placer County.

“A signal is safe for a pedestrian because there is a green light,” said Grehm.

In a roundabout, a pedestrian crosses one direction of traffic at a time, with a center island serving as a refuge between lanes, said Grehm.

The proposed roundabout alternatives would reduce the number of lanes on highway 28, creating one travel lane in each direction and a center turning lane, similar to Tahoe City. The traffic signal alternative would have two travel lanes in each direction and an additional center turning lane.

“In many cases, the second lane in each direction is the blind lane; they’re the ones who can’t see a pedestrian crossing the road,” said Polivy.

For pedestrian safety, fewer lanes means a shorter road width for pedestrians to cross, yet the alternative complicates the flow of traffic, he said.

“If the three lanes and roundabouts were to be adopted, during the peak season their capacities could be somewhat limited,” Polivy said.

The four lane, traffic light alternative has the capacity to handle more cars, which is a plus during the busy summer of months of July and August, he added.

Grehm said four-lane roundabouts, which would address traffic issues, would not be possible in Kings Beach.

“They’d be huge and wipe out the area,” he said.

Regardless of the number of lanes, Ritchie contends that when it comes to the flow of traffic, roundabouts are still more efficient than traffic signals because they do not force traffic to stop.

“Roundabouts are a large, high-capacity valve, thus requiring smaller pipes because of the continual flow of traffic with minimal delay,” Ritchie said.

Wilkins said Truckee’s roundabouts only experience congestion caused by another source like a freeway closure, or construction farther down the road.

“It’s always something else with the congestion backing into the roundabout,” Wilkins said.

Bike lanes and snow removal are other factors that come into play.

“If you have bike lanes on a roadway, the proper roundabout design needs to account for two types of cyclists ” those who prefer to stay on the roadway, and those who are not so skilled who would use ramps to put them onto a multi-use path, separate from the roundabout,” Ritchie said.

Bicycists who choose to stay on the road would have to merge with the traffic in the roundabout, potentially causing additional traffic complications for cars turning right with an on-coming bicyclist in their blindspot, said Grehm.

As for snow removal, there are many success stories of roundabouts in snow towns such as Vail, Aspen or Park City, said Ritchie.

The decision between a roundabout versus a traffic light is one of several big decisions that local residents will have to decide at the upcoming public workshops on the Kings Beach Commercial Core Improvement Project.

Express your opinions about the Commercial Core Improvement Project at the Open House, to be held from 6 to 8 p.m. today at the North Tahoe Conference Center.

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