By Courtney L. Saylor
Herald Staff Writer
PennDOT officials Tuesday tried to assuage concerns about confusion, train traffic backups and emergency vehicles related to a proposed roundabout for downtown Sharon.
About a dozen people attended a meeting in the Sharon City Building to learn about the two proposals to revamp the intersection of South Dock Street and Connelly Boulevard at the end of the state Route 718 widening project already under way south of the city.
Only a few asked questions and most seemed in-favor or at least open-minded about the novel idea.
Mike McMullen, project manager for PennDOT, said transportation officials decided to add the intersection that sees 12,000 vehicles a day to the scope of work to “fix inefficiencies.”
He said the intersection is “very tight” and built “many, many years ago” with roadway legs that don’t line up as well as they could. Heavy truck traffic in the area – nearly 1,000 large vehicles navigate the crossroads daily – often means tractor-trailers swinging wide to turn and opposing traffic needing to back up.
The two options PennDOT is eyeing would alleviate those concerns, either with a widened, signaled intersection or a single-lane roundabout.
“Engineering-wise, either one of these will work,” McMullen said.
PennDOT District Press Officer James E. Carroll said it’s too early to say which way the project is leaning.
“We’re looking for public input,” he said, noting that completion of the project is a couple years away.
Stephen Theiss said he thought it was better to experiment with the idea in Sharon than to put in the area’s first roundabout near the Shenango Valley Mall in Hermitage, another idea that’s been floated.
Theiss said he’s driven roundabouts in Washington and in New England and they seem to make sense.
The concept got a thumbs up from Brian Kepple after the information session, and Sam Walker also was in favor.
“I want a roundabout,” Walker said, noting that the four-way stop set up last year at Sharpsville Avenue and State Street while the traffic lights were being prepared worked just fine.
Walker said the stoplights don’t allow traffic to flow as well as a roundabout seems like it would.
McMullen said studies have shown roundabouts are safer than signaled intersections because there’s no opposing traffic and vehicles are going slower.
“You never have to stop. You do have to slow down, of course. These are not NASCAR tracks,” McMullen said, noting that the ideal speed in a roundabout is 20 to 25 mph.
Another plus to the roundabout is that it would eliminate maintenance and electricity costs for the city to the tune of $5,000 a year, McMullen said.
Like anything new, people may be apprehensive about traveling a roundabout at first, Carroll said. But they’d get used to it.
“You shouldn’t be driving if you can’t drive around in a circle,” said Don Hall, PennDOT assistant district executive for design.
Folks expressed concern about the close proximity of the intersection to a railroad crossing, but McMullen said the traffic delay wouldn’t be much different than it is with the current traffic light nearby. He said the average delay for a train at the crossing at Chestnut Street and Connelly is two minutes and that happens three to four times a week.
McMullen said they hope to start the next phase of widening Route 718 just south of Roemer Boulevard in Farrell to Connelly in spring 2014 but it could be 2015 before it gets under way. The intersection would be the final piece of the 1.42-mile project estimated to cost about $9.4 million.
The biggest challenge to the project, either way, will be acquiring the rights-of-way from property owners along the strip of road. McMullen said they’re just starting the process with the 45 or so properties along the stretch from Farrell to Sharon. He said about six properties are involved at the intersection for the proposed roundabout.
“It could be a very appealing entry point to the city,” Walker said.