City Commits to Roundabout at Main-Hwy 41

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.

December 16, 2021

This computer rendering shows the layout of a proposed roundabout for the intersection of Main Street and Hwy 41 in Morro Bay. Rendering by Omni-Means Engineering Solutions

The Morro Bay City Council has doubled down on a commitment to build a roundabout at another of its troublesome intersections, and in turn dress up the main entrance to town for visitors.

The Council voted to send a letter to the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG), the regional agency that doles out Federal and State highway monies garnered mostly through fuel taxes, funding major projects throughout SLO County stating their continued support for installing a roundabout at Main Street and Hwy 41 and a commitment to foot the City’s share of the bill, which could reach as much as $3 million.

City Manager Scott Collins told Estero Bay News, “Council stated its continued support for intersection improvements at Hwy41/1, and authorized the City to send a letter to SLOCOG outlining the City’s commitment to fund its portion of a future project there.”

But after about 20 years of planning, SLOCOG, Caltrans and the City have not pulled the trigger on a project that — at $8.9 million current estimates — has become wildly expensive.

“The roundabout is considered the preferred alternative,” Collins said, “based upon engineering studies, but the final decision on what project is pursued has not been made. That will come after the environmental work is complete.”

The City is currently in the midst of that environmental review to essentially fix what is now a part-time problem with traffic flow, that’s anticipated to grow untenable in a couple of decades.

“Improvements to the SR1/SR41 and Main Street intersection to resolve issues with congestion and delays have been under City consideration for over 20 years,” reads a City Public Works report, “with plans to design a roundabout at this intersection abandoned in 2002 due to funding issues. After reinitiating the capital project in 2014, the State required an Intersection Control Evaluation [ICE], a 2-step process that was completed by the City’s consultant, GHD, Inc., in 2016 and approved by Caltrans in 2020.

“Importantly, the ICE evaluation determined the existing intersection configuration will fail at full build out of the City by the year 2040.”

That ICE study developed options to solving the problem that essentially boiled down to a traffic signal or roundabout. But the intersection, similar to the Quintana Road-Morro Bay Boulevard intersection, where the City already installed a roundabout years ago, is in close proximity to Hwy 1 on and off ramps. 

“The SR41/Main intersection and the SR1/SR41 intersection,” the report said, “are about 75 feet apart; due to close intersection spacing and the existing controls, the two intersections operate as one un-signalized intersection with six approaches and exits. 

“This intersection’s current configuration creates several issues, including congestion, confusing traffic patterns, unfavorable pedestrian crossings, poor bicycle pathways, and increased carbon emissions from cars that must stop and go several times before clearing the intersection. As the gateway to Morro Bay for visitors from communities to the east and northeast, the intersection leaves a deficient first impression of the City.”

The ICE study picked the roundabout option “due to its reduction of congestion, construction of pedestrian and cyclist improvements, and creation of environmental benefits.”

The environmental review, which was begun over the summer, is evaluating both options. Meanwhile, SLOCOG, which has been alarmed at the quickly rising costs, asked the City in October to take a stand or potentially lose the money it’s been setting aside for years. 

“In late September, SLOCOG staff notified the City of their need to justify to the SLOCOG board their continued efforts to reserve $5.89 million in transportation funding for the SR1/SR41 and Main Street intersection improvements in lieu of programming funding for other projects in need across the County.”

SLOCOG was worried about perceived City foot dragging. “SLOCOG staff expressed general concern about the City’s slow progress on the project and requested the Morro Bay City Council adopt a resolution pledging a funding commitment to demonstrate the City’s resolve.”

The City said without a commitment, it could lose all that money and “will result in an uncertain future for the much needed, and expensive, intersection improvements to create a user-friendly, attractive entrance to the City,” the report said.

But the Resolution of course isn’t binding. “While the adoption of the proposed resolution does not obligate the City to expend funds on the project, it does give staff direction to continue the environmental evaluation, public input process for the two alternatives for intersection improvements from the ICE by completion of the Caltrans required Project Authorization and Environmental Determination phase of the project.”

So where is this money supposed to come from? City Manager Collins said, “Funding could come in the form of grants or City’s General Fund, or Measure Q/E [local sales taxes] as examples. Don’t know the specific amount of the City’s share at this time, but estimate around $2 million to $3 million.”

The staff report said that should the eventual project be a traffic light, there won’t likely be as much money available from SLOCOG. State rules require the City to look at a roundabout solution because it supposedly provides environmental benefits by not making cars sit at idle for several minutes waiting for the light to change. 

Roundabouts are also theoretically safer because they force drivers to slow down to an average of about 15 mph, when going through. 

But as readers who’ve driven the existing roundabout at Quintana and MBB can probably attest, a lot of drivers just blow through the traffic circle, not slowing at all. 

Nevertheless, “The roundabout alternative provides many benefits the signal alternative does not,” the City report said. “First, it would offer protective pedestrian and bicycle facilities for Morro Bay High School and visitor coastal access. Pedestrian crossings would be provided on all legs of the Roundabout with separated path from driving lane, and bicycles would be accommodated by navigating through the Roundabout in two ways — take the travel lane and travel through the Roundabout as a vehicle or take the separated bike ramp/shared use path and travel around as a pedestrian.”

As the project stands now it will provide 2,300 feet of new bike lane; 1,070 feet of new or reconstructed sidewalks; 10 new handicap ramps at the corners; traffic islands (refuges) for pedestrians; and traffic calming.

It will also require a complete rebuilding of the intersection including re-aligning the off and on ramps, and cutting into the corners of the Chevron Station and a vacant lot that used to be a Shell Station (approved for a Sonic Burger).

Concerns have been raised regarding the Hwy 1 North on ramp that parallels Main Street, as the designs for the roundabout show an extremely tight turn for large delivery trucks, which transverse the area daily.

The City first considered roundabouts with a study about 20 years ago that looked at three troublesome intersections — Quintana/MBB, Main/Hwy 41 and the San Jacinto-Main-Hwy 1 intersection. 

The study recommended roundabouts at all three but the one at San Jacinto/Main was rejected outright by the city council. A roundabout was built at Quintana and MBB, and has worked well, leaving the Hwy 41/Main to be decided.

SLOCOG is slated to discuss the matter at its January meeting, Collins said.

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