NEW ULM - After several years of delay, like it or not, motorists will traverse a roundabout on U.S. Highway 14 west of New Ulm within the next year or so.
The project is similar to roundabouts in use near Hutchinson and New Prague.
Taxpayers in New Ulm won't be paying for roundabout construction costs. Instead, Menards, Inc. is picking up the tab for the store to be built later this year west of the New Ulm Airport and pig barns formerly owned by Christensen Family Farms, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).
The map above, from the New Ulm City Planner’s office, shows the proposed Menards site plan with the Highway 14 roundabout in the lower right corner.
Scott Thompson, MnDOT Traffic Engineer in Mankato, said there is no public comment period for the project because it's viewed as a safety device.
Traffic engineers prefer roundabouts to traditional intersections controlled by traffic signals. Traffic approaching a roundabout drive in a circular pattern until they come to the exit for the direction they are heading. Traffic tends to slow as it merges, and there's little chance of someone running a red light and hitting cross traffic.
But roundabouts can be confusing to motorists unused to them, and truckers despise the tight turns the roundabouts force them to make
Thompson said extra steps have been taken to make the New Ulm roundabout more user-friendly.
"I know for a fact we've worked with a local construction firm that gets permits for over-sized loads, to ensure unique truck/trailer combinations can get through the roundabout," Thompson added.
He said a new, wider 25-foot wide, double lane is available for trucks to use, with a paved truck apron around the roundabout center island that truckers can drive on if needed.
Thompson said making the roundabout wider is touchy.
"The wider you make them, the faster people drive through them, which reduces safety. We're walking a fine line, but we use a semi truck as a design vehicle," he added.
Thompson said advance warning signs will advise drivers of the approaching roundabout that has a 20 mph speed limit and is well lighted.
Minnesota State Patrol Mankato District Commander Captain Lori Betterton lives in New Prague where several roundabouts were recently built.
"They take a little getting used to. It may be confusing the first couple times you traverse one, especially with double lanes, but they are extremely helpful in practically eliminating fatal intersection broadside crashes," Betterton said.
"Even if a crash occurs during a roundabout merge, speed is reduced to where injury is very unlikely. Broadside crashes at rural highway speeds are terribly violent, among the most difficult to survive," she added.
State Patrol Major Mike Asleson, a district operations officer in St. Paul, and a New Ulm native, said roundabout intersections "become a great deal safer with reduced speeds."
According to MnDOT, roundabout studies show:
A 48 percent decrease in all crashes and a 78 percent drop in injury crashes.
High traffic levels are handled with less delay than most stop signs or signals.
Where roundabouts replace signals, idling decreases, which reduces vehicle emissions and fuel consumption by 30 percent or more.
Driver delay can be reduced by up to 89 percent.
Some truck line owners and truckers have much different feelings.
Roundabout driving tips from MnDOT include slowing down and using the appropriate lane when approaching a roundabout, yielding to vehicles, bikers and pedestrians in the circle. Never stop, pass vehicles or change lanes in a roundabout. If an emergency vehicle approaches, exit immediately, pull over the stop.
"Put yourself in this situation," said Minnesota Valley Transportation owner Fran Schumacher. "You're not from this area, out on Highway 14 driving late at night and all the sudden, there's a roundabout. Guys hit the brakes. If they're on ice, trucks can jackknife and roll."
"The first time I took Highway 15 north of Hutchinson, I came to the roundabout and almost had heart failure. Roundabouts aren't big enough," he added.
Schumacher said semis need three lanes to make a safe roundabout.
Fairfax truck driver Calvin Mathiowetz said roundabouts are a "big nuisance" if people don't pay attention to them.
A contractor who helped build roundabouts in Hutchinson and east of Silver Lake on State Highway 7 and asked to remain anonymous, said they were designed for semi drivers to drag trailer wheels into the center circle to make the turn.
"Semis hauling wind turbine parts can't use Highway 15 or 7 around Hutchinson. They have to drive many miles out of the way to deliver loads," he contractor said.
"Don't forget the little old ladies who get lost, go around and around the roundabout, and smash into or under a semi," the contractor added.
Another truck driver said he'd rather drive through a roundabout than through a signal intersection on icy roads.
"Most roundabouts were built too small, too narrow... but we have to deal with it and go on with life," said D&A Truck Line owner Florian Dittrich.
For more information, go to www.dot.state.mn.us/roundabouts.
Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org