Roundabout touted as ‘safest choice’

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The intersection of Springcreek and Dern and U.S. Highway 2 is the site of a proposed roundabout. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake FILE)

About 150 Flathead County residents filtered in and out of a conference room at the Hampton Inn in Kalispell on Wednesday to share their thoughts regarding a new $3.9 million roundabout planned at the troublesome intersection of Dern and Springcreek roads along U.S. 2.

Construction on the project is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2021 and will take an estimated 12 months to complete. The Montana Department of Transportation is overseeing the project, which was designed by Robert Peccia and Associates of Kalispell.

According to Bob Vosen, the district construction engineer overseeing the project for the state, said the intersection has been a point of interest for a long time. Between 2003 and 2014, there were 48 crashes at the intersection, including one fatality.

“The bottom line here is the roundabout is designed to save lives,” Vosen said. “That’s what matters most is making sure people at the end of the day get home safe.”

The intersection is an odd one.

If one drives west from Kalispell on U.S. 2 toward Libby, it’s easy to notice the intersection that’s marked by flashing yellow lights in the middle of a relatively steep hill. The dips make it a challenge for drivers to see others on the road, with visibility being especially limited for those traveling north on Dern or west along U.S. 2.

The roundabout will be 100 percent federally funded. According to project engineers, the plan is to relocate the current intersection about 120 feet northwest of its current position in order to have flatter ground available to construct the roundabout. Vosen said the design is about 70 percent complete and will be finalized in the coming months.

According to Tom Cavanaugh, project design manager with Robert Peccia and Associates, about a dozen other options were considered prior to settling on the roundabout, including a four-way traffic stop and reduced speed limits. One option that was quickly tossed from the lineup was an overpass — an elimination Cavanaugh and Vosen said boiled down to cost and impact.

“The price for a overpass is much more significant than what it would cost to build a roundabout and the construction would have required we use a lot more of the surrounding property,” Cavanaugh said.

Vosen estimates the cost for an overpass would have been more than double the cost of the roundabout. He also said the need for full access interchanges and other vital parts of an overpass would require a “much more massive footprint.”

The plans for the structure come amid ongoing complaints from county residents regarding the Foy’s Lake roundabout on the U.S. 93 bypass — a point of contention for many who have cited traffic concerns, among other issues.

One woman who lives west of the Dern and Springcreek intersection said she thinks an overpass would be a safer option. Another man who lives around the anticipated construction area said he’s worried the roundabout won’t stand up to growing traffic loads years down the road. Many compared it to the Foy’s Lake roundabout.

However, project engineers and managers maintain the new roundabout will be different.

“The Foy’s Lake one has given roundabouts a bad wrap,” Cavanaugh said. “You’re not comparing apples to apples.”

Main differences include the volume and flow of traffic at the two roundabouts.

At the Foy’s Lake location, a steady stream of traffic flows in from all four directions, often leading to a congested intersection. In addition, data presented by the state shows traffic volumes at Foy’s Lake roundabout are 50 percent more than those at Dern and Springcreek.

One report also explains that most of the traffic at the Dern and Springcreek intersection travels east or west — a traffic trend engineers say will keep the roundabout from becoming backed up considering cars won’t frequently enter the roundabout from the north or south.

Vosen also said roundabouts serve different purposes.

“The Foy’s Lake roundabout was never meant to be a permanent structure,” Vosen said. “This one is meant to last the duration.”

He said the roundabout at Foy’s Lake is part of a “phased development” and was constructed in anticipation for a bypass that is expected to be fully complete by 2030.

Vosen said the Dern and Springcreek roundabout has a 20-year design life, meaning 20 years after project completion, the roundabout will still be able to serve the demands of the growing population.

Once in place, the structure will slow traffic to about 15 to 20 mph. Vosen, Cavanaugh and other project engineers and officials said the roundabout was the “safest choice.”

“It will slow traffic down without completely stopping it, which will provide a nice safety blanket,” Cavanaugh said. “If there are any accidents in the roundabout, at least cars will be traveling at 20 mph, which is much better than being T-boned at 60.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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