Safety and traffic efficiency issues at the intersection of Rt. 250 and Rt. 240 at the Mechums River trestle will be addressed by building a traffic circle there in the next few years, according to Joel DeNunzio, engineer for the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Charlottesville Residency.
The state received money from a federal fund for improving dangerous rural roads, which included Browns Gap Turnpike (State Route 680), which enters the intersection from the north immediately at the west end of the bridge over the river.
VDOT’s Lynchburg Residency, which handles Nelson County needs, has also been awarded funding for a roundabout at Rt. 151’s intersection with Rt. 250 in Afton, where a temporary traffic light was installed last month.
That project could take 10 years to realize, he said, but work on the Mechums River circle will start when money for design and engineering work becomes available in July. DeNunzio said the second draw in a three-year, $3.5 million award will be available in July 2018 and he expects construction to start at that stage. The last draw will be available in July of 2019. Construction could take many months because the road will have to remain open during construction, and that causes construction to proceed slowly.
“Maintenance of traffic really takes a lot of time,” he said. “It could take two construction seasons to get done.”
“The roundabout has to be large enough to do the job,” DeNunzio said. “We want it to get as large as we can make it. We do want people slowing down there. That’s part of the safety of a roundabout.” Typical vehicle speed through a circle is 15 miles-per-hour, he noted.
He said the Mechums location allows a circle with roughly a 125-foot diameter. The traffic roundabout at the Charlottesville airport has a 130-foot diameter and is a close approximation of what is likely at Mechums River. The roundabouts in Old Trail village have 110-foot diameters.
“I think it’s a great place for a roundabout,” said DeNunzio, who is a fan of the design.
“We have a sharp turn there [onto Browns Gap Turnpike] already and Rt. 240 is stopped, so it will move more efficiently, and Rt. 250 will flow very effectively. This will remove the chance of head-on collisions. In circles, accidents are usually sideswipes.”
The entrance to the new Mechums Trestle restaurant has been moved as far to the west as possible for its parcel and its parking lot will connect to Rt. 240, not to the new roundabout.
Denunzio said the center of the circle will be mowed grass, but that VDOT would consider a low profile landscaping plan if the County were interested in maintaining it.
“The center will have to be open for sightlines. You have to be able to see all the approaches,” he said.
“I think people are learning how to handle roundabouts. They’re getting comfortable. Roundabouts have a proven track record for safety and efficiency.”
Denunzio said that Rt. 151 has been identified as a road with proven safety issues. VDOT’s STARS program looks for small improvements that can help safety on such roads and that led to funding for the temporary light. Denunzio said changes in the program mean the intersection can be upgraded to a roundabout, which offers more safety and lower long-term maintenance costs. The cost is estimated at $4.5 million. The location offers more space and the roundabout will likely be on the order of 150 feet in diameter. “The approaches will divide the roadway and add curves to the approach.”
But a circle may not get built there for another 10 years, he said. “We may be able to accelerate it, but design funding won’t be available until 2020. The [Charlottesville-area] did well in the last round of Smart Scale funding and we’re looking to deliver as soon as we can.”
DeNunzio said that it’s a common misconception that roundabouts are unfriendly to pedestrians. “If you look at the statistics there are fewer accidents with pedestrians at roundabouts.” The Mechums roundabout will include a walking path along the north side of the road and pedestrian crossings at the north (Browns Gap Turnpike) and west (Rt. 240) approaches.