Nearly four years after the first shovel hit the ground at the $71 million Apponaug Circulator Project, drivers are finally getting used to a new traffic pattern that includes five rotaries over 2.3 miles of road, accommodating 25,000 vehicles a day. Jim Hummel finds the situation much improved from a year ago when Warwick Police recorded 101 accidents over a six-month period. This week, the director of the Department of Transportation and the chief of police in Warwick weigh in on how drivers have adjusted and the effect the new pattern has had on traffic flow.
This is the traffic pattern - and flow of vehicles - that engineers envisioned years ago when they first proposed re-aligning the roads leading into and out of Apponaug, traditionally one of the most congested areas in Rhode Island.
With the progress, though, came a lot of pain for nearly three years as drivers sat through construction delays and were re-introduced to the rotary: something that had been phased out in Rhode Island more than a generation ago.
Alviti: ``There’s a learning curve involved when you place this kind of alternate, new traffic pattern in a community.’’
DOT Director Peter Alviti had preached patience a year ago when the Hummel Report found there were 101 accidents during the six months after the initial phase of the new traffic pattern had been opened in the fall of 2016.
We went back and measured the same time period a year later. Warwick Police reported that the number of accidents had been reduced to 38 over those same six months - a sign, Alviti said, that drivers are gradually getting accustomed to navigating the circulator.
``And I think we’re seeing the results of that. Everything is trending toward that reduction, there is a reduction in serious accidents. In fact, not only from last year, but from even to pre-construction conditions when all of the red lights were there. The roundabouts allow for a continuous flow. It’s not a lot of stop and go. While there’s some queuing and slowdown, that helps mitigate the accidents that would happen at those intersections. And it recreates the angles that accidents happen at, to a less severe kind angle.’’
The project had already broken ground when Alviti arrived as DOT director in 2015, but he agreed with what the plan was trying to accomplish, despite a public that at times was skeptical.
Hummel: ``When you came in and you looked at what they were proposing, what did you think of as an engineer?’’
Alviti: ``It was an ambitious project for a small, very highly compact area like that, but as an engineer I quickly saw through the studies and the indications that we got from engineers. Being an engineer I trusted in their judgment and I could see the logic in the science behind creating the roundabouts as opposed to the intersections that were there.’’
A review of the accident reports from the past six months shows two themes: lane confusion and drivers failing to yield when they are supposed to. The rule of thumb for drivers entering a rotary is to yield to those already in it.
McCartney: ``All of those circulators have provided viable options for people to bypass the Apponaug Village, which to me was just a huge chokepoint.’’
Warwick Police Chief Stephen McCartney has had a front row seat for the construction the past three years - and for 15 years before that saw the accidents and congestion as northbound and westbound motorists were funneled along Post Road in front of City Hall.
McCartney: ``Initially there was a lot of people complaining about it, but I think looking at the bigger picture here, what was accomplished by this project? I think it has given motorists here more options to get around into the city of Warwick.’’
McCartney said the main problem now is many motorists still don’t know how to negotiate a rotary.
McCartney: ``Every once in awhile you’ll see people inside the rotary and they stop when they think somebody is coming right up to it. And clearly, most of the time they’re elderly people who are going to be natural very nervous going through that circulator to begin with.’’
Rob Cote, a leading critic of the project, lives a mile from the circulator and travels through it several times a day. We interviewed him a year ago and went back last week to get his reaction now that the project is finished.
Cote said it is a good sign that the number of accidents has decreased, but his main complaint is that there are too many signs - and that drivers are bombarded with multiple messages in a short period of time as they approach Apponaug from any direction.
The D.O.T. - it turns out - agrees:
Hummel: ``People tell me there are a lot of signs. And if you’re not familiar with the area, it’s a lot to absorb as you go in. So talk to me about signs versus making quick decision.’’
Alviti: ``So, we agree with that. I agree with it. One of the observations I’ve made it that the signage that’s out there can be a bit confusing, there is too much of it. So what we’re doing is kind a streamlining of the signage.
Alviti said over the next two months the department will take down some of the existing signs and replace them with clearer ones like these.
Alviti: ``And we’ll be putting back fewer signs, but ones that are more descriptive of what you need to know when you’re approaching a roundabout, that is, to be able to anticipate and know beforehand, before you get to the roundabout exactly what turnoff is going to put you where you want to go. That’s the key. I think some of the confusion that we’ve experienced in the last year going through that - and I myself, will get through the first one and the second one, but by the time the third one sometimes you can get a little disoriented, particularly with the number of signs that are out there.’’
Many of the businesses we spoke with say the traffic is much better and drivers had a mixed reaction, some saying other drivers often don’t know - or don’t adhere to - the rules of the rotary.
Alviti is hoping better signage will help.
Alviti: ``Many times with traffic patterns we need to go as engineers back and revisit what the effect of, for example in this case, the signage was and what we can do to improve on that.’’
McCartney: ``To go through that conditioned response period of time, in terms of your driving, to get used to understanding exactly what were the rules of the road going into the circulator. And who had the right of way and who had the yield. I think slows but surely motorists are starting to get it.’’
In Apponaug, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.