The N.C. Department of Transportation has a checkered reputation, to put it mildly, in many quarters of the state.
For instance, it’s still recovering from a self-created cash-flow problem that saw it overspend its budget by more than 12% in fiscal 2018-19. The ripple effects slowed construction projects in many parts of North Carolina.
And there are lots of people living just north of Charlotte who remain angry about the agency’s decision to install toll lanes on Interstate 77. Fallout from that decision arguably helped cost former Gov. Pat McCrory a second term in 2016, and in the Lake Norman area, the agency won’t soon live down the nickname “NCiDiOT.”
But if there’s one thing DOT can point to as a success story, it’s ongoing the effort to promote the replacement of existing intersections with roundabouts like the one the agency’s about to build in Oxford.
The Oxford roundabout is replacing an existing intersection controlled by stop signs. Officials are expecting construction to take the bulk of the summer, and DOT’s 2020-20 construction program indicated that the agency has spent about $22,000 on it already and expects to spend another $230,000.
Town officials like Mayor Jackie Sergent are enthusiastic about about the project, seeing not just the practical benefits but a chance to beautify an an intersection on the edge of downtown
Make no mistake, however, it’s the practical benefits that have spurred DOT’s enthusiasm for such conversions in the past couple of decades.
Those benefits include energy savings.
It takes electricity to operate stoplights, so every intersection the agency can replace with a roundabout saves that little bit more in annual operating costs. The change is easier on taxpayer wallets, and easier on the environment.
But highway safety is the larger benefit.
It should be intuitively obvious that a roundabout reduces the possibility of t-bone collisions, which are always potential killers. An inattentive motorist can still get in trouble when entering the traffic flow of a roundabout, but the lower speeds and softer angles should take the edge off an impact.
Two in-house studies at DOT underscore the point.
One, released in 2011, examined 30 new roundabouts and found a 46% reduction in crashes, and a 76% reduction in crashes causing death or injury. The other, in 2020, found a 41% reduction in crashes at 13 intersections replaced by roundabouts, and a 79% reduction in crashes causing death or injury.
Those are staggering improvements, and all it takes to replicate them is continued effort by DOT and a bit of enthusiasm and support from local officials.
In Oxford at least, that’s not lacking. “We want to get our folks used to this one and we’ll see about adding another one,” Sergent said. “If it was up to me, we’d have many more.”
The 2020-29 construction program doesn’t have any more roundabouts on tap for Oxford or the rest of the Tri-County, but DOT revises the program on a regular basis and it would be good to see city, town and county officials nominate some more intersections as candidates for conversion.