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Mass. drives to remove rotaries

Roundabouts have a rebirth elsewhere

CHELMSFORD -- They were so glad to see the Drum Hill rotary gone that business leaders and local politicians threw a party to thank the Massachusetts Highway Department for replacing the accident-prone traffic circle with four sets of traffic signals.

"There is no nostalgia for the old rotary, none," said Terence F. Flahive, the president of Princeton Properties and the host of this week's celebration of the rotary's demise.

While the Drum Hill rotary is merely the latest to be eliminated under a decadelong program begun under Governor William F. Weld, other states have not been as quick to give up on the rotary. In fact, this distinctive feature of the Massachusetts roadway system -- there are about 70 rotaries throughout the state -- is being embraced with new enthusiasm in New York and Vermont.

"They may need to be massaged a little or ripped out and replaced with a different type of circle, but it's the one traffic solution that actually gets you accident reduction," said Rich Schell of the design services bureau in the New York State Department of Transportation, who recently briefed Massachusetts highway officials on a rotary retrofit in West Springfield.

Rotaries or roundabouts, the preferred new term among advocates, require drivers to slow down and yield to those in the circle. They force eye contact and human interaction that makes driving safer when people follow traffic rules, advocates say.

Popular in Europe and Australia, the first rotary in the United States was Columbus Circle in Manhattan. They have proliferated in Massachusetts since the first was built in Yarmouth on Cape Cod in 1939, but construction of new rotaries was banned in the 1960s.

In the mid-1990s, the state Highway Department began a campaign to eliminate rotaries where accident rates were highest, concluding that rotaries cannot accommodate modern traffic volumes.

Under Governor Mitt Romney the antirotary initiative has intensified. The highest-profile case is the Sagamore rotary at the gateway to Cape Cod, where the governor wants to build an overpass from Route 3 that would allow drivers to skip the summertime wait-and-weave ritual.

The $4 million reconfiguration of the Drum Hill rotary, an oval over Route 3 feeding four major local roads in Chelmsford that had the third-highest accident rate in the Commonwealth, inspired Representative Steven A. Baddour, cochairman of the Transportation Committee, to try to eliminate the rotary at Route 110 in his hometown of Methuen.

State highway officials are redesigning Copeland and Bell circles in Revere and looking at alternatives for the flow of traffic in the Furnace Brook rotary in Quincy. Leverett Circle, at the easternmost end of Storrow Drive, will be eliminated as part of the Big Dig and replaced by new signals, dedicated lanes, and a tunnel for those headed to Interstate 93 north and the Tobin Bridge.

Jon Carlisle, spokesman for Transportation Secretary Daniel Grabauskas, said the elimination of rotaries would continue, despite the prorotary movement that is taking hold in other parts of the country.

"It's about eliminating a traffic design whose time has come and gone," Carlisle said, adding that the first priority is improving public safety.

If a local community doesn't want to reconfigure a rotary, the Highway Department will listen, Carlisle said, as part of the Romney administration's new "Communities First" policy on building roads.

At Bell Circle in Revere, he said, business and political leaders objected to a proposed redesign, and state planners went back to the drawing board.

"I don't know if there's a better design for them, but the rotaries that exist today are extremely dangerous," said Mayor Thomas Ambrosino of Revere.

Roundabout advocates say that the big rotaries and traffic circles built in Massachusetts in the 1940s and '50s are not well designed and that drivers try to use them while going too fast. The optimal design is compact and forces drivers to slow before entering.

"I know the frustration caused by the poorly designed rotaries that are left over from an era when traffic was light, but I've driven through modern, well-designed rotaries in England and other parts of this country, and I know how well they work," said Brookline resident Werner Lohe, who has been active in local roadway design.

Rotaries, he said, eliminate the possibility of a high-speed collision when someone runs a red light, he said. "We need more rotaries, not fewer," he said.

At Place d'Etoiles in Paris, around the Arc de Triomphe, drivers "rely solely on eye contact, human negotiation, and informal rules," said Ben Hamilton-Baillie, a British consultant who has advised Cambridge, Mass., about roadway design. "It handles over 120,000 vehicles a day, and its actual record for casualties is surprisingly low."

Although rotaries require more driver interaction than waiting for the light to turn green at conventional intersections, George Sanborn, reference librarian at the state Transportation Library, said that Massachusetts driving culture was probably the biggest reason that rotaries have fallen out of fashion.

"People are used to high-speed travel," Sanborn said. "They come roaring down the straightaway and realize they have to stop." Instead of slowing down, though, drivers often ignore the state law that requires yielding to the person already in the rotary and plunge ahead, he said.

Sometimes, the only human interaction might involve a blaring horn and an obscene gesture.

"Massachusetts drivers are something else," he said. "Everyone tries to take advantage."

Anthony Flint can be reached at flint@globe.com.

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