Planned Traffic Patterns Cause Conflict

Ellen Hoffman, Editor-in-Chief

Editor’s note: This story is the first of a three part series examining the construction of a new traffic pattern at the five-way intersection in the heart of Dallas.

Senior history major Catie Becker remembers eagerly waiting for the traffic light to change at the bottom of Lake Street last spring. After leaving upper campus with what she said was plenty of time to get to her babysitting gig, she feared she might end up late because of the long line of traffic on Lake Street and other ends of the five-way intersection.

Becker said leaving directly after class when both students and teachers are trying to get home is when the traffic really backs up.

After a 10-minute wait, which seemed like an eternity, she said, Becker drove through the intersection.

“I ended up being on time for babysitting, but I felt really rushed and frustrated since I had left early,” she said.

Becker, Student Government President, is one Back Mountain resident who feels a scheduled traffic change at the busy intersection will be for the better.

“The lines get to be ridiculous at the five-way intersection, and the lights take forever,” she said. “Since there’s no way to effectively get rid of that intersection, this seems to be the most apparent way to make it more efficient.”

PennDOT officials plan to restructure the five-way intersection at the bottom of Lake Street in Dallas to create a roundabout, a traffic pattern that keeps vehicles moving in a circle, enabling them to travel onto one of the streets without stopping. The project, known as the Dallas Five-Leg Intersection Improvement Project, is scheduled to be finished in 2016, and work has already started. The project is in its final design stages with a bid date scheduled for June 2015, according to Debbie Noone, a PennDOT Assistant District Executive for Design.

“Some utility work will need to be performed ahead of the actual construction and would most likely be accounted for in the beginning of the construction schedule,” she said.

This utility work includes improvement to the Upper Demunds intersection and the intersection of PA Route 415 and PA Route 309. The improvements are scheduled to be completed before construction of the roundabout project will begin. Becker thinks the result of the roundabout could benefit students, especially at busy hours of the day such as lunch and dinner hours when she says students now wait 10 or 15 minutes to get through the intersection, whether they are coming to or leaving campus.

“With a roundabout, I would hope that this congestion could be alleviated and traffic could flow more smoothly,” she said.

Officials believe the project will improve traffic flow, provide safety, mobility and access for pedestrians and bicyclists, minimize impacts to the environment and cultural resources and develop a cost-effective design with the maximum use of funds, according to the project’s website.

Noone said officials and engineers “used sophisticated simulation software to demonstrate and model how the traffic will flow under different scenarios.”

Becker understands construction may take time, but she thinks that if work takes place during the summertime, when school is not in session, the bulk of students should not be too concerned.

“I think many students and locals see this as a negative because they think about the construction, which will likely take a while. However, if they wait until schools are not in session and work quickly, I don’t think it will be too big of a headache,” she said. “It’s just something people will have to tolerate for a while.”

While Becker is keeping an open mind, some homeowners and downtown Dallas business owners reject the idea of this major change.

Norm Tomchak, a 39-year Dallas resident, said roundabouts are challenging for drivers.

Tomchak worked as a salesman and regularly traveled to New Jersey for business purposes and he said roundabouts were very common. He does not understand why officials would want to bring this type of traffic pattern to the Back Mountain.

“Go back a little in time, and these things were very prevalent in New Jersey. I found them very difficult to negotiate and difficult to navigate,” he said. “As the years moved on I noticed that they started to disappear. That’s why I was kind of confused as to why they would bring one here.”

Noone said roundabouts are a good and safe alternative to traditional intersections, and they are effectively used in other regions.

“Roundabouts have been successfully built in other districts,” she said. “They eliminate the necessity for traffic signal maintenance as well as move traffic more efficiently and reduce the number and severity of crashes.”

The official project website compares traffic circles, like the Wilkes- Barre Public Square, to modern roundabouts, such as the one in the planning process for Dallas.

Traffic circles have a larger diameter to allow for higher speeds of travel, while roundabouts have a smaller diameter where cars would travel at lower speeds. In traffic circles, the right of way is given to entering traffic, while the roundabout provides circling traffic with the right-of-way.

Public Square allows for pedestrian crossings within the roadway, while the soon-to-be roundabout would not allow for that and create a more safe traffic flow.

Tomchak said a problem with the existing intersection is the lengthy stop lights.

“I’ve been at the bottom of Lake Street where the light only lasts for six seconds. Not too many cars can get through a traffic light in six seconds,” he said.

He believes that tweaking little issues will resolve the traffic snarls better than a roundabout will.

Parts of the five-way intersection will be closed during the construction process, and Tomchak is concerned about traffic that will pass in front of his home on Country Club Road until the work is finished.

“I can just foresee the amazing amount of traffic that is going to line up in front of my door for some time because of the closing of those roads. So all the traffic is going to come right in front of my home – buses, trucks, everything.”

While Tomchak lives in Dallas, he said traffic from Harvey’s Lake piles up, especially during the summer when people travel to the lake.

Becker does have one concern with the roundabout – how large trucks and buses will navigate the circle.

“My concern with creating the roundabout is that with large trucks carrying wind mill supplies, or pipeline materials, I’m not sure how they’ll fit. While I’m sure they have some engineer who knows much more about this than me, it just makes me nervous.”

Dominick Fino, owner of Fino’s Pharmacy on Main Street in Dallas, fears the roundabout will crush his business and others.

He said if customers cannot easily access his pharmacy, his sales will diminish.

“Once you lose a customer, it’s hard to get them back.”

He says he could even make a guarantee that some businesses will be forced to close or move to stay afloat during construction.

Fino said in the 50 years that his business has been in downtown Dallas, there have been a handful of accidents in that intersection, if that.

“They [PennDOT officials] were selling the safety aspect,” he said. “If anything, there is going to be more accidents with the addition of this roundabout.”

He also said emergency vehicles may also be unable to travel safely.

“How long will it take emergency vehicles to get where they need to go? There is no way to stop traffic with the roundabout.”

Fino and a number of other businesses owners tried to submit a petition to the PennDOT group in charge of the project.

“Business-wise everyone was against it,” he said. “But, they kept going through with it and there was nothing we could do. Everyone I’ve talked to is flabbergasted this is going through.”

Bob Besecker of Besecker Realty is also against the roundabout installation.

“I’ve made myself quite clear about it and I don’t think it will work. I don’t think that it will work as a one lane traffic pattern,” he said.

Besecker said officials claim cars will be traveling the roundabout at 15 miles per hour. He thinks there is no way someone who is late for work will drive that slowly.

“I say more like 50 miles per hour,” he said.

Besecker said his businesses parking spaces will not be greatly affected, but he said other busi- nesses that need walk-in customers will be the ones hurt.

“I don’t get much walk-in traffic in my business, but others do and they’re going to suffer,” he said. “They [officials] are only listening to the borough council and they voted 100% for it.”

While Tomchak has never attend- ed a formal project meeting, he has talked to a number of residents in his community, 250 to 300 people who he says are all against the major change.

“Not a single person has indi- cated that this is the right idea.”

[email protected]