Council Picks Roundabout to fix Hwy 41 and Main

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

July 16, 2023

The intersection at Hwy 41 and Main St., Morro Bay

Despite going round and round and getting several letters in opposition, a split City Council decided to pursue a roundabout at Main Street and Atascadero Road (Hwy 41), as the solution to that over-taxed intersection.

The Council was given three basic choices — do nothing and leave the intersection as is with a 4-way stop; put in stoplights (one at Main/Atascadero Road and another at Atascadero Road and the on and off ramps to Hwy 1); or put in a roundabout, which was by far the most expensive to construct but cheapest to maintain over the long haul.

City Clerk Dana Swanson told Estero Bay News that the council vote was split 3-2 with Mayor Carla Wixom and Councilwoman Zara Landrum voting against the roundabout option. 

“Council moved to recommend the roundabout alternative to Caltrans for approval,” Swanson told EBN, “and, if approved, direct City staff to begin design phase and pursue additional funding opportunities for the project. 

“Additionally, [they] recommend staff include simulation and educational materials for both motorist and pedestrian use in the design phase, and cap the City’s funding at $2.5 Million to unlock SLOCOG funding.”

SLOCOG is the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments and is the countywide agency that disperses Federal and State roads monies to the County and the various cities, Morro Bay included. 

SLOCOG has been putting away money for this intersection for many years and as of a May public meeting on the matter, had some $6 million put away for a roundabout. But current estimates for that project are from $8 million to $12 million, with the City expected to cover much, if not all, of the shortfall. 

By comparison, traffic signals were estimated at $4 million to $6 million and SLOCOG has about half of that available for signal lights.

A roundabout, despite concerns about pedestrian and cyclists’ safety, has always been the preferred solution to an intersection that is currently performing at efficiency level “C” and could within 10 years drop to an “F” rating in terms of handling heavy loads of traffic.

Indeed, that intersection loads up and bogs down every school day with kids and staff going to and from Morro Bay high before and after school. 

It also loads up whenever the Cuesta Grade (Hwy 101) is blocked by an accident or shut down for maintenance. Those occasions send tons of traffic down Hwy 1 to Hwy 41 to get to North County, turning the intersection into a choke point and backing up Hwy 1 traffic on the off ramps, nearly into the highway lanes of traffic.

Also, Hwy 41 is one of the main entrances to town, especially for folks coming here from the Central Valley and can load up traffic at any time during the summer.

The City has had a consultant, GHD, working on the issue and the worldwide engineering firm is expected to now start working on actual designs for a roundabout.

But if you think it was an easy decision to make, consider that the City Council received numerous letters of concern — most favoring stoplights and against a roundabout — signaling a somewhat divided citizenry. 

And council members themselves had a tough time reaching a conclusion to the matter, resulting in the split vote.

Indeed, the decision was first scheduled for June 13 but that meeting went long with council questions and was shelved until the June 27 meeting, when they finally voted on their preferred project.

The City staff will now also begin the hunt for more grant monies. At the May public meeting, Public Works Director, Greg Kwolek said they would look to other grant programs, like the State’s “Safe Routes to School Act.”

According to Caltrans, “Safe Routes to School is an approach that promotes walking and bicycling to school through infrastructure improvements, enforcement, tools, safety education, and incentives to encourage walking and bicycling to school.”

The City has tapped that program a couple of other times with regards to Del Mar Elementary School. With Morro Bay High just a short block from the intersection, it may serve as a funding source, though pedestrian safety for the high school students was the biggest concern by residents who commented before the meetings.

Morro Bay residents, Brian and Nicole Dorfman, were in favor of neither the roundabout nor stoplights.

“Our primary reason for this request is pedestrian safety,” the Dorfmans wrote to the Council.  “Specifically, safety for the scores of high school students who walk through this intersection on a daily basis while school is in session. Any other considerations for this intersection must take a backseat to pedestrian safety.”

They added, “Fortunately for Morro Bay, the location in question is already equipped with the best way to assure very slow speeds of vehicles — stop signs — where every vehicle must stop. With both roundabouts and traffic lights, vehicles can go at significantly faster speeds, and with the case of traffic lights, may even speed up to dash through a yellow light before it turns red.”

Indeed using Los Osos Valley Road through Los Osos as an example, before the County put in stoplights at South Bay Boulevard, 10th and 9th Streets, there were 4-way stops. 

In the latter 1990s when the lights went in at all three intersections, speeds on LOVR through the main area of the Downtown increased by nearly 20 mph, with cars rushing to beat red lights. 

Before, everyone knew they had to stop anyway, so speeds were considerably slower.

Morro Bay resident, Gail Johnson, didn’t want any changes either. “Please choose Alternative 2, the No-Build Alternative, and direct City staff to explore pedestrian safety measures as part of the Local Road Safety Plan. A roundabout at the intersection would be an expensive and disastrous solution, and is likely to lead to more problems than it will solve.”

She explained that at a roundabout, drivers look left and turn right, without stopping, but with just “Yield” signs. Her experiences with the Morro Bay Boulevard/Quintana Road roundabout have been eye-opening. Her experience “has taught me that crosswalks as a ‘feature’ in a roundabout are insane solutions to pedestrian safely. The point of a roundabout is to yield to the traffic on your left without stopping, so a driver will always concentrate their attention to the left. But pedestrians trying to cross from the right are often not seen.”

Former Mayor Jamie Irons and wife Monica were in favor of a roundabout, having driven through two while on a recent Sierra Nevada trip. They urged the Council “Support and approve the Roundabout option. Adding to agenda correspondence about the Truckee/Tahoe roundabout example. We just drove through that a week ago with a travel trailer and it worked great. Additionally we utilized another roundabout in South Lake Tahoe on the same trip. It provided us the ability to make a U-turn instead crossing traffic.

“The ‘do nothing’ option is the most expensive. Past cost estimates for this intersection was in the $2M-3M range. Delaying the inevitable will certainly cost more.

Another resident, Cindy Betonte, was also in favor of a roundabout. “There are very good reasons why roundabouts are being built all over the country, as well as internationally. A roundabout is a much safer option for everyone involved. Cars are forced to travel at a lower speed helping to calm traffic, as opposed to encouraging increased speed to ‘make the light.’ Drivers are less agitated when they can keep moving as opposed to waiting at a stand still for traffic signals. There is more space between cars and pedestrians and pedestrians only have to watch for traffic coming from 1 direction on a round-about.”

The closest nearby example of what stoplights here would look like is in Atascadero, she said. “The multiple signals near the intersection of Hwy 101 and Hwy 41 in Atascadero are a nightmare! I was glad to hear they will be replacing these signals with roundabouts. Multiple Public Works Advisory Board groups have supported this solution and the staff report is clear; the stop signs or multiple signals will not be adequate in the future.”

Designing a roundabout to fit the Main Street/Atascadero Road intersection will take some doing, as the intersection is crossed by underground utilities — water and sewer — plus storm drains, and potentially others. 

There are also one set of Hwy 1 off and on ramps that empty directly into the intersection and another set just yards away.

All of these factors are perhaps why the roundabout’s estimated costs have risen so dramatically in the nearly two decades since the city first looked at addressing that intersection.

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