Healdsburg City Council advances roundabout plans for key intersection

Clark Mason, The Press Democrat

The town of Healdsburg is proposing a roundabout at the 5-way junction of Healdsburg Ave., Mill St. and Vine St. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)
The town of Healdsburg is proposing a roundabout at the 5-way junction of Healdsburg Ave., Mill St. and Vine St. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

A long-planned roundabout at a main Healdsburg crossroads passed a milestone this week with the City Council’s approval of its conceptual design and authorization for the public works director to prepare construction drawings so the project can be put to bid.

The roundabout at the gateway to downtown is seen as a more efficient way to handle motor vehicles, as well as make it easier on pedestrians and cyclists to navigate the five-way street intersection bisected by railroad tracks.

“Reduce the traffic, reduce the speed, put the car in a secondary position, upgrade the position of the pedestrian and the bicyclist,” said consultant David Gates, describing the aim of the roundabout. “It’s an equal treatment of all the elements, or more equal treatment.”

The intersection where Healdsburg Avenue, Mill and Vine streets converge with the railway tracks can sometimes confound motorists and challenge those who are on foot, or on two wheels.

Consultants say roundabouts can handle more cars without the backups of traditional intersections, with less engine idling and air emissions. Vehicles move slowly, but continuously, and as a result there are fewer fatalities and less damage when collisions occur.

Pedestrians will have shorter crossings because of islands between traffic lanes. And bicycles will be able to flow with traffic moving at around 20 miles per hour, according to consultants.

“It’s intended to be more functional for everyone involved,” said Bill Silva, a consulting engineer with GHD Inc.

The Healdsburg roundabout, anticipated to cost around $2.5 million to build, is expected to break ground in the spring or summer of 2016 and take about 18 months to complete. It has not been subject to controversy like those in some other towns.

In Cotati, voters enacted a permanent ban on roundabouts in 2012, likely the first municipality in the nation to take that step. A roundabout planned in Forestville and another proposed next to the Sonoma Plaza also met with resistance.

Despite assurances from traffic consultants and insurance companies of their safety, opponents see roundabouts as confusing or unnecessary.

“People seem to think a roundabout is this strange thing no one can ever get around, “ Healdsburg Public Works Director Brent Salmi said of the skeptics. “They watch too much of ‘National Lampoon’s (European) Vacation,’ ” he said in reference to a classic movie scene where the fictional Griswold family gets hemmed in for hours driving around a traffic circle in London.

Salmi said that in the numerous workshops and community outreach meetings in Healdsburg, he heard from a small number of doubters or those adamantly opposed to a roundabout. “Everybody else has supported it,” he said.

A roundabout at the five-way intersection in Healdsburg was proposed in one study as early as 1982, according to consultants.

About five years ago, the idea began to gain momentum after the city embarked on a public outreach process to come up with a development plan for the central Healdsburg area.

Prior to approving the conceptual design on Monday, council members wanted assurance that the new traffic feature won’t be prone to backups — for example, when northbound cars will funnel from two lanes into one, along Healdsburg Avenue, before entering the roundabout.

Councilman Gary Plass said he still gets calls from some longtime residents in the community surprised that the city is going ahead with the roundabout. He described it as “fear of the unknown.”

Plass said he is in full support of moving forward, although he won’t be convinced until the roundabout is built that “it will work 100 percent.”

Councilwoman Brigette Mansell had questions about how smoothly traffic will flow, but said she was in favor of anything to increase the number of pedestrians downtown and “slow things down.”

“It’s been a long time coming. I think it’s a very nice plan,” Councilman Tom Chambers said.

The conceptual design involved making sure that big vehicles with trailers will be able to navigate the new traffic feature.

The City Council last year authorized a $997,000 expenditure to pay for the roundabout’s engineering design, including roadway, rail, utilities, landscape architecture, preparation of construction documents and community outreach.

Hydrology is another issue that is being addressed in the plan, because Foss Creek flows under the intersection and repairs are required to a badly deteriorated, nearly century-old culvert that funnels the water.

“It’s like five different projects all rolled into one,” said Salmi, the Public Works director.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @clarkmas.