A decade ago, the Capital Region had no roundabouts.
Today, at least 35 have been built around the region. Of those, more than one-third — 13, to be exact — are in the central Saratoga County town of Malta.
Decades of residential and commercial growth culminated in the arrival of GlobalFoundries and a confluence of more traffic, with economic development-associated federal and state money to pay for improvements.
It’s been seven years since a row of five roundabouts — a first in the region — opened around Northway Exit 12. Even with the passage of time, drivers tend to either love them or hate them. Some people claim to avoid Exit 12 entirely because of them.
In the eyes of the state Department of Transportation, however, they improve traffic flow and overall safety and will remain the option of first resort whenever intersections around the Capital Region need to be improved.
“They are still philosophically the first option where they are appropriate,” said DOT spokesman Bryan Viggiani.
The use of roundabouts — tight-radius traffic circles designed to slow drivers down, while not requiring them to stop except to yield to vehicles already in the circle — is really only a few decades old in the United States, though they are widely used in Europe. They are becoming more common everywhere as a replacement for traffic lights, which traffic engineers view as inefficient. Lights, they say, can leave frustrated motorists idling their engines, sometimes through two or more cycles.
“We find they’ve been significantly successful in reducing delays,” Viggiani said.
The region has had an old-fashioned traffic circle where routes 2 and 9 meet in Latham since 1934, according to the Federal Highway Administration. It essentially became the region’s first roundabout when improvements were made in 2002.
The differences between a traffic circle and roundabout, according to information from the Virginia Department of Transportation, include control at entry, operational characteristics, deflection, speed, diameter, splitter islands and pedestrian and parking accommodations.
Even if traffic engineers love them, the public is ambivalent about the new way of doing things. Accidents have risen at Malta’s roundabouts, especially at the two-lane roundabouts around Exit 12 — but injuries from accidents have declined significantly, because when collisions occur, they are at lower speeds, officials say.
“They have been significantly successful in reducing injury accidents,” Viggiani said.
The Federal Highway Administration calls roundabouts the safest alternative for many intersections and continues to promote them.
“We encourage our members to look at them. The fatality rate goes nearly to zero,” said Michael Franchini, executive director of the Capital District Transportation Committee, which manages the region’s federal transportation funding.
He said a higher initial cost for roundabouts is made up for in the savings from reduced deaths and injuries, as well as fewer traffic backups.
“There's a value to less congestion,” he said.
Despite having years to become familiar with them, many Malta residents continue to dislike them, and a proposal for two more to help handle growing traffic on Round Lake Road near Exit 11 is causing a current controversy. People who live along Round Lake Road and in the surrounding neighborhoods say they’re worried proposed roundabouts at the Ruhle-Raylinsky roads intersection and at Chango Drive will make the area less safe.
“I would like to see traffic stop so people could go across,” said Murray Eitzmann, who lives along the road. “I just don’t want an issue with kids crossing the street.”
The town is looking at improvements there because of growing traffic volumes on Round Lake Road, much of it due to residential development taking place in the town of Ballston.
“They don’t want to talk about it, but traffic lights with turn lanes can be very effective, and it’s cheaper,” Eitzmann said.
Engineers have kept the option of traffic lights on the table because of the public opposition, but earlier this month again concluded roundabouts were the best choice. The Town Board will discuss it at a Dec. 30 meeting.
“I was impressed by the consensus of the engineers,” said Malta town Supervisor Paul Sausville. “They cited efficiency and safety, and those are powerful arguments, as far as I’m concerned.”
The state DOT believes unequivocally that they are the safest option for the average intersection.
“They are safe for pedestrians and bicyclists,” Viggiani said.
In some circles, Malta’s roundabouts have become notorious, and something to avoid having in your community. In Saratoga Springs, residents’ opposition killed an engineering firm’s recommendation for two roundabouts at Broadway intersections in 2007.
There has also been some talk about having them on the roads around Northway Exit 9, in the heart of the Clifton Park-Halfmoon commercial zone, but nothing concrete has ever been proposed. Clifton Park town Supervisor Philip Barrett believes some will be proposed at some point.
“The word ‘roundabout’ does generate strong feelings on both sides of the issue,” Barrett said. “Some think they’re great, and some think they’re the worst thing that could happen to the roads in our region.”
In some places, they’ve gotten a favorable reaction. The region’s first modern roundabout was installed in 2004 in Greenwich and is considered successful. One in downtown Glens Falls has also generally earned praise.
Three in a row have also opened in recent years on Fuller Road in Albany, near the College of Nanoscale Sciences and Engineering.
“They love it compared to the previous intersection,” said Franchini.
Other roundabouts have opened recently at intersections like the ones at Maple Avenue and Glenridge Road in Glenville and routes 30 and 67 in the Vail Mills.
Viggiani said lessons learned are leading the state to use different signage around the roundabouts and sometimes to design them differently. One common design change, seen at Route 9 and Stonebreak Road in Malta, creates a slight bend going into the roundabout, to slow motorists as they enter it.
Motorists are supposed to enter a roundabout at a speed of 30 mph or less, though it’s easy to observe people trying to get through them much faster. Murray Eitzmann’s wife, Kathy, said she saw a car last week pull out and pass a car that was yielding to traffic at a roundabout, nearly causing an accident.
“They go through wicked fast,” she observed.
Viggiani said there are no other roundabouts close to construction in the Capital Region, though there are places for which they are being discussed. One possible location would be on the Niskayuna said of the Rexford Bridge, where afternoon traffic backups going toward Saratoga County have become notorious. But a roundabout there would be part of a bridge replacement project, and the state doesn't yet know where money for replacing the bridge will come from.
A roundabout is also among several ideas under discussion to improve the intersection of Erie Boulevard and Nott Street in Schenectady.
Viggiani said the biggest factor in getting the public to accept roundabouts may be increasing their familiarity with them.
“I think people who don’t want them, after they go through them a few times, they accept them,” he said.
Despite the concerns and opposition, though. roundabouts are likely to continue slowly replacing traffic lights for the foreseeable future.
“I think yes, there will be a lot more of them in the future,” Franchini said.