Making our intersections work

Michael Abraham

Maybe it’s just me, but I hate traffic lights.

Back when I was a child, when Blacksburg and Christiansburg were separate and distinct towns, there was only one traffic light between them. It was at Peppers Ferry Road, adjacent to the NRV Mall. At last count, there are 25 now. It’s maddening. I hate the wasted gas, the wasted time, and the inefficiency.

I think we can all agree that the worst one is at the intersection of North Franklin Street and Cambria Street by the Recreation Center in Christiansburg. Five roads come together there and it’s a mess. On rare occasions, I’ve breezed right through on a green, but more often than not I’ve needed to wait, sometimes as much as 3 or 4 minutes. Fortunately, I don’t go through it on my regular routine, but those of you who do probably are even more frustrated than me.

Plans are afoot to “upgrade” that area, but I’m totally convinced that the chosen solution not only won’t solve the problem, it may worsen it. That’s yet to be seen, but what’s for sure is that they are adding another traffic light!

There’s no doubt this is an extremely difficult intersection, with the convergence of five roads:

* from the south on Franklin Street from downtown Christiansburg

* from the east on SR-111, Cambria Street, from the Cambria section of Christiansburg

* from the north, exiting the US-460 bypass

* from the north on Franklin Street from the mall area

* from the west on SR-111, Cambria Street, from the Windmill Hills neighborhood

Highway planners initially had both roads from the north merging together just before the intersection, and that proved to be a mess. So they kept them in separate lanes with their own lights at the junction. It’s been confusing to drivers ever since, and many accidents have occurred there. The new plan, presented recently at a public hearing I was unable to attend, has a new signalized interchange just north of the current one to bring those lanes together, and then unleash them on the current one. So those drivers will wait not once but twice!

There’s a long exit ramp from the US-460 bypass. But at busy times, vehicles back up all the way onto the fast bypass lanes. This new solution will do little if anything to prevent that because the ramp will be even shorter. If traffic is really heavy, it will gridlock from the existing light to the proposed one, and then nobody will be able to get through. Montgomery County is adding roughly 1000 new residents annually, so this problem will only exacerbate.

So what would work better?

I’ve written on this page before about the benefits of roundabouts. Circular intersections are the default design around most of the world. They offer many advantages over conventional intersections. There are fewer conflict points because movement is consistent rather than being “pulsed” by the changing of lights. They force lower speeds, making the crashes that do happen less serious. They better accommodate pedestrian movement. Absence of signal equipment means lower long-term operational maintenance costs. They are more aesthetically pleasing. Significant for the case in point, by being expandable, they can handle more than four access roads. And they significantly reduce fuel consumption and emissions because there is less idling.

Modern designs are many, including more than just circles. In some cases, they are ovalized to bring add carrying capacity. There are “dogbone” styles with two circles linked by a straight stretch, like at the east end of Virginia Tech’s Drillfield Drive where it meets Stanger Street, Kent Street, and the Alumni Mall. The size and configuration can be altered to adapt to almost any proposed capacity.

It seems that VDOT has somewhat gotten the message, as the new Southgate Drive diverging diamond interchange with the US-460 Bypass just southwest of campus has two new roundabouts. Inexplicably to me, a signalized interchange was added as well when a third roundabout would, in my view, have worked better. As I said, I hate traffic lights.

So why not in Christiansburg?

I brought my concerns up with Mayor Mike Barber, explaining my fear that after months of disruption and millions of dollars spent, the proposed design may not work better than the current design. The impression I got from him was that the town was largely out of the decision process, and he was simply happy money was being spent here rather than in Northern Virginia. I’m as pleased as he is that statewide transportation money will be spent here instead. But that’s no excuse to do it wrong. We have a once in a generational opportunity to get this right.

Imagine if you use it regularly and after the inconvenience of months of construction, the result is no better than before! Grrrr!

I suspect at this point, plans have been finalized and construction looms. I hope I’m wrong and things work out better than I anticipate. But I’m not optimistic. What do you think?

Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.

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