Kennebec Tales

November 21, 2013

Driving Augusta’s traffic circles? Go go go!

Augusta’s legendary rotaries have been joined by two “roundabouts,” but let’s face it, a traffic circle is a traffic circle.

Generations of Augusta teenagers had their learning to drive baptism of fire within seconds of their driving career as they left the parking lot of the old flatiron building and plunged into the Cony traffic circle.

click image to enlarge

The new traffic roundabouts on either side of Interstate 95 in Augusta opened last month.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

Some of the first words of advice I ever got from my high school driving instructor?

“Go. Go GO! NO! Stop! STOP!”

That’s the refrain every time I drive through one now, except without the no and the stops. Go go go. It’s the only way to get around the rotaries.

He who hesitates is lost.

Augusta’s traffic circles were put in on either side of the Memorial Bridge in 1949 when the bridge was finished.

They are legendary. We write about them in the newspaper (lots of accidents!), bloggers blog about them, any business or resident in Augusta giving directions uses them “Go three-quarters of the way around the rotary…” They’re even listed in Wikipedia under the “traffic circles” entry.

When two new traffic circles opened in north Augusta a few weeks ago to help traffic better flow off the highway and to the new MaineGeneral hospital, they were welcomed into the Augusta traffic circle family. Hey, we know you guys, come on and join the fun.

Except they’re not calling them traffic circles, they’re calling them roundabouts. And supposedly, there’s a difference.

Roundabouts are supposed to slow down traffic, as opposed to rotaries, which were designed to keep it moving, according to Stephen Landry, traffic engineer for the Maine Department of Transportation.

Landry is the go-to guy on rotaries, roundabouts, circles — whatever — and is quoted liberally in all traffic circle-related stories in Maine newspapers.

“A rotary is typically a circular roadway that has a very large radius and is built to facilitate speed going through the circle area,” Landry told Kennebec Journal reporter Betty Adams a couple weeks ago. “The way that each leg comes into the circle is kind of tangential, so you don’t have to slow down a lot to enter or go around it.”

“A roundabout has a much smaller radius. As the roadways come into the circle, they’re aimed to the center, forcing the motorists to take a right turn into the circle, and they’re banked to naturally slow drivers down.”

He may know the technical aspects, but in Augusta we know our circles.

While there may be engineering differences to the two new circles, and they certainly are very pretty, most Augustans approach the concept from a different angle. Slow down? No. Go go go.

About a year ago, Adams did a feature on a young man from Readfield, Nathan Belz, who’s getting his doctorate in traffic studies. Like a true Augusta-area native, he likes his traffic circles.

“They’re much more efficient (than traffic lights),” he told Adams. “If you come on one in the middle of the night, you don’t to wait for the lights to change.”

Go go go.

Rotary-hardened Augustans approach the circles with gusto — it’s virtually impossible to get across the city without going through one or both. There are legends of life-long Augustans who pick their way through the cities’ byzantine maze of back roads in order to avoid them. Augusta’s version of subway dwellers. Do they really exist? Who knows.

We sneer at out-of-staters and folks in from the country who wait forever to make their move, timidly inch into the circle or — the worst sin — stop, befuddled, mid-rotary blinker flashing as we swerve and dodge to keep from hitting them.

Go go go!

Landry told Adams that when Cony Circle was reconstructed a few years ago to put all those helpful arrows, lines and medians in (let’s face it, taking a lot of the fun out), 15 feet was also taken from its diameter, dropping it from rotary (go go go!) status to roundabout status.

(Continued on page 2)

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