Traffic on St. Simons Island isn’t getting any better, according to some sources, and the county figures roundabouts are part of the solution.
At its Aug. 1 meeting, the Glynn County Commission voted to award Jesup-based Curb and Gutter Professionals a $1 million contract to construct a roundabout at the intersection of East Beach Causeway and Ocean Boulevard, to be paid for with Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax 2016 revenue. Work is expected to begin this month.
While that intersection is the subject of some contention, it’s just one of three the commission is considering replacing with roundabouts. The second is the intersection of Kings Way and Frederica Road and the third is at East Beach Causeway and Demere Road.
A single lane is planned for the two roundabouts on East Beach Causeway because they handle relatively small amounts of traffic compared to larger intersections on the island, said Glynn County Commissioner Peter Murphy, who represents St. Simons, Jekyll and Sea islands.
That they handle less traffic than others is little disputed and is used as a justification for some to oppose roundabouts at those intersections, such as the members of the SPLOST 2016 Citizens Oversight Committee.
To explain why those two, in particular, were picked, one has to look back to the county commission of 2015.
“One of the things I said then and I’ll stand by today, part of the traffic problem on St. Simons Island is we allowed elected officials and homeowners determine how to fix road problems instead of turning it over to professionals,” Dale Provenzano, who sat in Murphy’s seat until 2017, said.
In 2015, the commission was dealing with rising public concern about infrastructure — roads, bridges, stormwater drainage and utilities. It was a shift from what they had been dealing with in years prior, the lack of jobs due to the Great Recession, Provenzano said.
Commissioners eventually handed the issue over to the Brunswick Area Transportation Study, a metropolitan planning organization made up of city and county employees and tasked with long-term transportation and infrastructure planning.
BATS recommended hiring a consultant to look at the issue, which resulted in the county paying architectural, engineering and planning firm Pond & Company for a limited traffic study of St. Simons Island.
“They came back with a report that said ‘Here are the intersections that are most vulnerable, that are in need of repair, are in need of attention,’” Provenzano said. “Surprisingly — and I don’t mind using the word ‘surprisingly’ — the study recommended the East Beach Causeway improvements. (It said) the traffic in and out of that area was a burden to people on the island.”
According to Provenzano, the study recommended short- and long-term improvements for various roads and intersections. The long-term improvements for the two East Beach Causeway intersections were roundabouts.
“If you read the Pond study — and I’m one of the few people that has — the intent was to put a roundabout centered on where the center of the current intersection (at East Beach Causeway and Ocean Boulevard) is,” Murphy said.
That said, the county is in the process of conducting a new traffic study, this one much more in-depth. While the Pond study cost a little more than $40,000, by Provenzano’s reckoning, the county agreed to pay engineering firm CDM Smith $275,000 to update its metropolitan transportation plan. A good chunk of the money will go towards a SSI Sector Traffic Study.
The SPLOST oversight committee called on the commission last year to wait until that study was completed before moving ahead with the roundabout plans on East Beach Causeway.
Most commissioners, however, felt they had to go through with it because they’d promised it to the public. While the two intersection projects hadn’t been listed as such on the SPLOST 2016 ballot item, the commission had told the public what to expect at multiple town hall meetings.
Additionally, Murphy said he didn’t think the new traffic study would invalidate the Pond study.
“When we go back and look at the traffic studies they did and the surveys they did, they were very questionable. They were also done several years ago, and things have changed a bit,” said at-large commissioner Bob Coleman, the sole vote against awarding the roundabout contract to Curb and Gutter Professionals.
Provenzano said the Pond study wasn’t complete in the sense that it didn’t address every road and intersection on St. Simons Island, but it was clear about its recommendations on the three in question.
Even if it were true, Coleman said there are many intersections on the island that could use $1 million in improvements.
“No. 1, show me the need. No. 2, that sure is an awful lot of money to spend in that spot when there are areas all over the island that can use $1 million to improve intersections,” Coleman said.
While he does see the sense in putting money into the intersection of Frederica and Kings Way, the other two seem like a waste, he said. Trying to speed up traffic at all on St. Simons Island may be a losing proposition.
“If you plan to go to St. Simons Island, plan to be in bumper-to-bumper traffic, plan to go 35 miles an hour. It’s like going to Atlanta, you know what you’re getting into,” Coleman said.
Given that SPLOST 2016 passed by a narrow margin, Murphy said he’s not really surprised that many oppose the roundabouts.
“I’m fully aware there are people that disagree. When you win something (56 percent to 44 percent), that means (44 percent) of the people didn’t agree with it, so it’s no surprise that some people don’t agree with what’s on that SPLOST list,” Murphy said.
According to Public Works Director Dave Austin, construction on the roundabout at East Beach Causeway and Ocean Boulevard is still planned to begin this month.
Ideally, construction on the roundabout at East Beach Causeway and Demere Road will begin around this time next year, following the summer rush, he said.
Improvements to the intersection of Kings Way and Frederica Road were expected to begin sometime in December or January.
Commissioners were in favor of some improvements to the intersection to add more turning lanes and change the traffic signal intervals, but those plans may change. Earlier plans for that intersection would have seen it turned into a roundabout.
“We have been asked to revisit that situation, so we’re revisiting that situation,” Murphy said. “We have recently been presented another option, to put a single-lane roundabout closer to the Lodge at Sea Island, which would move part of Kings Way close to the lodge as it enters and exits that roundabout. Again, it would be a single-lane roundabout, which I think is terribly undersized, and would be tremendously expensive because it would require we move Kings Way and Frederica Road, as well as several large oak trees to preserve them.”
Nothing is official, Murphy said, but the commission likely will consider alternate plans for the intersection.
All three intersections will be among the subjects he plans to bring up at a town hall meeting on St. Simons Island issues planned for Sept. 4.