A new roundabout installed at the Interstate 12 interchange in Walker to improve safety and efficiency is doing the opposite, many residents and the local police department say.
"Confusing" is how one IT consultant described it when asked last week. "Interesting," a local pastor said. "Terrible," according to a gas station manager who said some customers are now agitated almost to the point of hostile when they stop in during rush hour.
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The circular traffic control structure replaced traditional traffic signals at the eastbound exit in August as part of a $6.7 million state project to improve traffic flow off the busy highway at La. 447, known locally as Walker Road. A second roundabout is under construction at the westbound exit.
The replacement came after studies that considered the volume of traffic, peak hour turning movements, safety and existing infrastructure, said Bambi Hall, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation and Development.
According to information provided by the department, roundabouts make traffic move more smoothly, reduce the number of fatal and injury crashes, and save money when compared to signal equipment.
But Capt. John Sharp, spokesman for the Walker Police Department, said the roundabout is creating a problem with traffic and crashes.
"I know these roundabouts are supposedly a great way of controlling traffic, and I wouldn't say they're not. But it's not a one-size fits all kind of a deal," Sharp said. "Not every intersection can be helped with these roundabouts."
His biggest complaint is that traffic is, he said, backing up worse than it once did on the shoulder of the eastbound interstate during rush hour as commuters wait to enter the roundabout.
Hall said traffic backed up onto I-12 was a significant factor in the decision to replace the signal with a roundabout. She said DOTD has been making adjustments to the lanes and signage in order to reduce congestion there. She said completion of the second roundabout is also expected to help.
But Sharp contends the roundabout itself is also creating a hazard. He estimates there are three to four crashes on a weekly basis there — most are low-speed crashes, and therefore have not caused serious injury. But in one case, an 18-wheeler rolled over, he said.
Hall said she could not respond to Sharp's claim that the number of crashes has gone up, because traffic safety data has not yet been tallied for this year.
She said DOTD plans to add lighting at the roundabout by December 2018.
While some residents are reserving final judgment until the full project is completed in January, many share the police department's concern.
Melissa Vizinat, 55, commutes daily from Walker to the state Department of Environmental Quality in Baton Rouge.
Vizinat said that since the roundabout was built, she usually drives Florida Boulevard home simply to avoid it. She's concerned about a bad rear end collision that could result if an inattentive driver smashes into the long line of cars waiting in the shoulder to exit.
"Somebody is going to get rear-ended, and I don't want it to be me," she said.
Steven Forbes, a 26-year-old operator at Dow Chemical, is a little more optimistic and said he thinks the roundabout has slightly improved traffic at the interstate exit. The problem, he said, is people don't yet understand how to drive in the circle.
"It's something new here in the area," he said.
Walker Mayor Jimmy Watson said the roundabout works better than he expected in the north-south direction on Walker Road, but he is concerned about the backups on the highway.
Brian Wolshon, a civil engineering professor at LSU who studies traffic, said the big advantage of a roundabout is that, in an ideal world, nobody needs to stop. In addition, due to the lower speeds of cars entering the roundabout and the angles at which people enter, there is a reduced chance for serious, right-angle crashes.
Wolshon said the structures are best suited for intersections with moderate volumes of traffic, as large volumes can result in backups. He also said roundabouts can lead to more, smaller crashes, but they're usually less severe than the crashes that could happen at a normal signal intersection.
Roundabouts are still fairly uncommon in more rural areas, and he said that as people get used to using a roundabout it can become safer and faster.
"Over time, people will become accustomed to it and use them better," he said. "They not only become more efficient, they become safer."
The roundabout at the I-12 exit is the third roundabout to be built in Livingston Parish. There are also roundabouts at the intersection of U.S. 190 and Eden Church Road and La. 16 and La. 22. A fourth roundabout is under construction in Denham Springs at the intersection of Lockhart and Cockerham roads.
Hall said DOTD also plans to install roundabouts in the area between Denham Springs and Walker along La. 1026 at Dunn Road, U.S. 190, Buddy Ellis Road and Eden Church Road. There is also a roundabout proposed for the intersection of La. 447 and La. 16, she said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the number of roundabouts in Livingston Parish.