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A Big Learning Curve

It has been a bumpy transition as the Apponaug Circulator gradually changes over to a series of roundabout intersections: traffic snarls, continued problems with dust and debris and a Hummel Report investigation that found more than 100 accidents since November have some wondering if the new traffic patterns will actually solve the area’s longtime congestion problems. This week we hear from a leading critic of the project - and the director of the Rhode Island D.O.T., who admits there has been a learning curve for motorists.


The signs may say Welcome to Apponaug, but for drivers trying to negotiate the new $71-million circulator of late, it has been more challenging than welcoming.
Take any weekday afternoon at rush hour and the traffic is likely to look like this: Backed up well onto feeder roads, with some people giving up altogether and seeking an alternate route.
In the six months since the Rhode Island Department of Transportation reached its first major milestone - opening two-way traffic along major stretches of the circulator - Apponaug has been a Land of Confusion for many.
Cote:  ``The Apponaug circulator is a very dangerous place to navigate.’’
Rob Cote travels in and around Apponaug up to half a dozen times a day. For 25 years Cote has worked throughout New England in the construction industry as a quality assurance manager. We first interviewed him in the fall of 2015 about what Cote says were code and contract violations during construction. 
We met with him last month for an update on functionality.
Cote: ``This was engineered and designed specifically to avoid accidents and to move the traffic faster through that area.’’
Hummel: ``And what’s happened?’’
Cote: ``The number of accidents has increased, maybe tenfold?’’
So what do the statistics say? 
There have been more than 100 accidents in the five major intersections, including four circulators, between Nov. 1st, 2016 and the end of April. It took the Warwick Police Department four hours to pull all of the reports - 452 pages, detailing 101 accidents - that we asked for in an Access to Public Records Request at the beginning of last month.
We reviewed dozens of reports that had a familiar narrative. Drivers unsure of who needed to yield to whom and confused about which lane to be in with decisions to be made in a short period of time. The worst intersection? This one, where Greenwich Avenue, Veterans Memorial and the Vets extension all intersect. The reports show 72 accidents at that roundabout alone in six months - none serious, mainly fender-benders.
Warwick Police Chief Stephen McCartney tells The Hummel Report it is impossible to compare the number of accidents before and after construction because the intersections are totally different. When the project is largely completed this fall, there will be a total of five roundabouts - what we used to call rotaries - spread across the 34-acre site. The chief acknowledges, though, there has been an unusually high number of accidents over the past six months, as the reports his officers take indicate.
Cote sees it every day and one of his biggest complaints is the round walls put in the center of each circulator that do not allow motorists to see who’s coming from across the way. 
Cote: ``Multiple rear-endings. People come to a yield sign and they just stop. And one of the reasons they stop is they have to look to see what’s coming around the other side of that rotary, because you have a big brick wall and plantings and they can’t see. If those weren’t there, you’d have unrestricted vision and you could easily navigate and know whether you need to stop or you could drive right through.’’
Alviti: ``We’re pleased with the progress.’’
We sat down Tuesday with DOT Director Peter Alviti, to talk about the project generally and to answer some of the issues Cote has brought up with us - and with the department. 
Avliti says the big walls in the middle of each circulator are intentional - and that the most important thing for motorists to concentrate on is what’s happening nearest to them and not across the circle.
Alviti does admit, though, there has been a learning curve for drivers.
And we asked him about the number of accidents reported by the Warwick Police.
Hummel: ``There’s 101 accident. Does that surprised you?’’
Alviti: ``No, it doesn’t, actually not, because we have the same data.  The good news is, in this stack, the number of severe accidents compared to previous years has actually gone down, so that’s the good news, accidents resulting in injury. The bad news side of it, the minor accidents have increased considerably.’’
Cote: ``Now the DOT will say once everybody gets used to it, the accidents will go away. Well, what time frame are they thinking? And are they thinking that there’s not going to be a stranger who comes here for the first time who enters it and is not completely confused?’’
Hummel: ``You’re going to have new people using that virtually every time, so unless every person who goes in at the end gets up to speed, there are going to continue to be  new people; so then what does that mean for the learning curve when you’re introducing new drivers virtually every day, six months, a year, a year and a half, two years?’’
Alviti: ``Well I think regionally you’re seeing other DOTs are implementing roundabouts as a method to make our roads more safe, right? So I think over time as the more idespread use of roundabouts, not only here in Rhode Island but in other states, people will become more acclimated to them.’’
One repeated complaint during construction has been the amount of dust, dirt and debris around the circulator - and the effect it’s had on local businesses.
Kirby: ``Every day seemed to get worse. Nobody wanted to come to the area.’’
Randy Kirby owns Roger Williams Auto Sales. He says rocks kicked up and broke windshields of the cars on his lot and the vehicles were continually filthy from the construction.
Kirby: ``It’s embarrassing to have dirty cars. I mean people would come look at them and you’re apologizing right from the get-go.’’
Last fall Kirby had enough, plotting an exit strategy for a business that had been there 20 years. And a month ago he moved his operation to Providence Street in West Warwick, where business has picked up considerably.
Kirby: ``I’m relieved because I couldn’t stand going there every day, I didn’t like it. There were some days where nobody would come in. Zero. I always said it was Alcatraz - it felt like Alcatraz out there, like you were deserted.’’
Cote said he has called the department repeatedly about the sweeping.
Cote: ``And I got a message saying we are aware of the situation. Look, we’re all aware of the situation, the question is what are you going to do about it? You’re making my neighborhood look terrible.’’
Alviti: ``We are aware of this. The contractor is aware of it. It’s a problem that re-occurs on a daily basis, with construction happening. This was a 34-acre construction zone.’’
Hummel: ``Doesn’t the contract call for daily sweeping?’’
Alviti: ``It does.’’
Hummel: ``And so where’s the sweepers?’’
Alviti: ``We have the sweepers out there.’’
Hummel: ``When?’’
Alviti: ``They’re out there on a daily basis.’’
Hummel: ``Does that look swept to you?‘’
Alviti: ``Well no, but in between - we can’t send sweepers out in the middle of rainstorms, so lot of these types of depositions that you’re showing me here, pretty apparently happened after a rain storm.’’
Hummel: ``If you went down there, today, Director, with all due respect, if you went down there today, you’d see similar.’’
Alviti: `Well, as a construction zone, every day you go down there as they take the debris off through the next day it’s going to re-accumulate.’’
Then there are the roundabouts themselves. Nearly all have skid marks from tractor-trailer trucks that have ridden up and over the beveled concrete while navigating an intersection.
Cote: ``Look at the real estate that’s been wasted with these huge dead areas of open space that we’re putting in brick walls.’’
Hummel: ``You’re saying they had the space.’’
Cote: ``They had the space, those lanes should be wider.’’
Alviti said just the opposite: the roundabouts were designed specifically to have trucks go over the stamped concrete.
Alviti: ``The purpose for that is for large commercial vehicles to be able to navigate and have a surface that, since they’re longer vehicles, that their tires can go across.’’
Hummel: ``You expect that.’’
Alviti: ``Yes, yes.’’
Hummel: ``That’s in the design for them ride up over the roundabout?’’
Alviti: ``Absolutely. As a matter of fact, in these roundabouts the lane widths are 15 feet; the lane widths on the interstate highway on (I)-95 are only 12 feet; so it made these lanes wider for this specific purpose and we installed this concrete inner circle for very large commercial vehicles to be able to navigate around it and have the turning radius that required for the vehicles.’’
Hummel: ``Should they be even bigger, those lane, or not?’’
Alviti: ``No.’’
Hummel: ``You want them up on the…’’
Alviti: ``Yes, absolutely this was designed specifically for the large commercial vehicles to navigate that inner circle.’’
Plans call for the final roundabout to be installed at the old Apponaug Four Corners by this fall; then the DOT expects the project to live up to the vision  engineers had going back nearly three decades.
Avliti: ``I’m confident that as time goes on, as people go through that learning curve and become more acclimated, we’re going to see a reduction, maybe not a reduction in minor accidents, but a reduction in serious accidents.’’
In Apponaug, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.

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