Going Round and Round on Roundabout

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.

May 19, 2023

The rendering is an early depiction of how a roundabout might be situated at the intersection of Hwy 41 and Main Street in Morro Bay. It should be noted that the actual project has not yet been designed [or a final option yet chosen], so the final design might not be situated like this early version.

It’s been looming over the heads of people in Morro Bay for decades and after another round of information gathering, the City Council is expected to finally decide whether to put a second roundabout in a busy local intersection.

City Public Works officials, and reps form Caltrans and the Council of Governments were on hand May 10 for a public forum on the Main Street/Hwy 41 intersection, currently a 4-way stop but envisioned as a roundabout or possibly a signalized intersection.

About 75 concerned citizens turned out for the meeting that was led by Public Works Director Greg Kwolek and included City Engineer Eric Riddiough, Paul Valadeo of Caltrans; John DiNunzio of SLOCOG, and Morro Bay native son, John Rogers, who heads up the project staff for GHD, a worldwide engineering and environmental consulting firm the City brought in for the project. Riddiough is the City’s project leader.

Sticker for Your Thoughts

Jorge Vanegas-Moran of consultants GHD explains the Hwy 41/Main Street roundabout concept to MB resident Glenn Siloway. Photo by Neil Farrell

The forum started out with a “Sticker for Your Thoughts” exercise, as the various officials manned computer renderings of the three options under consideration — a roundabout, a traffic signal, and status quo or no changes — and answered questions from attendees.

Different colored sticker dots were used — red for having serious concerns (i.e. they don’t support the concept); yellow for those who have questions about it (but don’t outright oppose it); and green signifying, “I feel this will work well.”

The roundabout had a mix of colored dots with about 60% of them red. 

The traffic signal, which would actually be two sets of lights — one each on either side of the Hwy 1 overpasses — had a good mix of colored dots as well, but with a slight majority of them green. 

And the “no changes” option too had a mix but mostly red. 

So it would seem that most residents at the meeting agree the intersection, which Rogers said was the second worst intersection in town in terms of accidents, needs to be improved. 

It’s also a convergence of two State highways — 1 and 41, which brings Caltrans into the project as both funder and design critic.

Main/41 an Old Issue

The 41/Main intersection was one of three troublesome intersections the City looked at many years ago — the others being Hwy 1/Main/San Jacinto, and Morro Bay Boulevard/Quintana Road. 

All three were recommended for roundabouts but so far, only the MBB/Quintana one has been built. It seems to be working fine if not exactly as planned. It has a pretty light accident record. 

Rogers said in their research, the roundabout has had just nine accidents reported over the past 5 years, “plus a lot of near-misses.” The 41/Main intersection has had 23 crashes over that same time period. Rogers said, “Forty-one and Main is the [collision] hot spot for Morro Bay.”

Roundabout Always Preferred

The San Jacinto intersection was rejected for a roundabout but the 41/Main Street roundabout has always been the preferred option. 

But while time has dragged on, costs have risen dramatically. Current estimates from GHD show the roundabout at $8 million to $12 million and a traffic signal at $4M to $6M. 

SLOCOG, which is the funding agency for local transportation projects, has been putting away money for the intersection for many years and now has about $6 million saved for a roundabout project. But there has been pressure from other cities in SLO County to release that money because Morro Bay’s project is far from ready to go.

SLOCOG has about half that amount available for a traffic signal. 

Where’s the City’s Beef?

It’s presumed the City would be on the hook for at least some of this funding shortfall, a prospect that had many in the audience concerned. 

Some wanted to know where the City planned on getting that money? To which Kwolek said they would seek more grant funding through other programs, like the State’s “Safe Routes to School Act.”

The City has tapped that program a couple of other times with regards to Del Mar Elementary School. 

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.”

Morro Bay High School is just a short block away from the 41/Main intersection and most everyone in attendance at the meeting decried the danger that inattentive teenagers pose walking to Taco Bell or the Wee Shack at lunchtime.

Studies Support Roundabout

Over the years, various studies of the intersection have produced cost-benefit analyses and the roundabout, though it’ll cost twice as much, in the long run pencils out cheaper. 

A stoplight has ongoing maintenance and electricity costs; increases traffic conflicts and delays waiting for the light to change; among other drawbacks.

And that time spent idling with the engine running as others to the left and right cycle through, increases air pollution, which comes into play with the funding.

Currently, projects that receive funding tend to be those that cut emissions, and a roundabout supposedly does that. 

But how much concern pollution makes to residents was dwarfed by the concerns about the pedestrians walking through the intersection, especially the teen-aged high school students. 

And with construction on an 83-room Hampton Inn on the west side of Hwy 1 and a 35-unit apartment complex a block away up Hwy 41 (Atascadero Road) traffic will increase, though not by a whole lot.

GHD’s Rogers said they had used the traffic studies from both of those projects in their latest analysis of the intersection, so that increased traffic has already been accounted for.

Caltrans’ Valadeo explained that his agency does a so-called “Intersection Control Exercise” or ICE that looks at features like the potential for broad-side collisions and sideswipes, and “being able to get to Point B in an adequate amount of time.” The costs vs. benefits analysis, last updated in 2021, includes maintenance needs and costs over 20 years. “We did that Ice analysis here and the roundabout won out,” Valadeo said.

Still, concern about the school kids was strong. 

Kids Playing Frogger

Kwolek, who said he’d just met with student leaders at the high school about this project, said, “We see the high school as one of the biggest stakeholders in this.” 

He joked that the high school kids said the drivers were the problem, and walking through the intersection was like playing the classic video game, “Frogger.”

He added that they are using a school newsletter to help poll what the students feel would be the best fix at that intersection. 

Other stakeholders include the police and fire departments. Kwolek said he spoke to both the fire and police chiefs about the intersection and each said they didn’t think a roundabout would slow them down. 

The fire chief, he explained, was only concerned about the center island having bump curbing and not the traditional blocked curbs. They like the roundabout because it cuts out cross traffic and cuts down on potential head-on traffic.

The police chief was “pretty neutral,” Kwolek said. Chief Amy Watkins didn’t think a roundabout would cause them any problems.

Intersection Gets an ‘E’

GHD’s Rogers said the intersection has long been under performing and they see it getting worse with time. Currently, using standard measurements of traffic load and how well the intersection handles it, the intersection scores an “E,” when the goal is a “C.” In as few as 10 years, it could be at an “F.”

The intersection does get congested in the mornings before school and after school (starting about 3:15 p.m.), but also is very busy all summer long, as the main entrance to the city coming from the east.

It also backs up whenever the Hwy 101/Cuesta Grade has an accident or is undergoing maintenance. When that happens, traffic at the Hwy 41 off ramp on Hwy 1 can back up onto the freeway.  

Council Has Final Say

Residents will have a chance coming up in June to speak to the City Council directly about this. Kwolek said their goal is to bring the question of roundabout vs. traffic signal to the City Council at their June 13 meeting seeking definitive direction on which option to pursue.

They were also planning to bring the matter to the Public Works Advisory Board on May 17, which is past Estero Bay News’ deadline. Reruns of that meeting can be found on Morro Bay’s page at: www.slo-span.org and will be rerun on Charter Cable Ch. 20, the local government access cable TV channel.

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