Roundabouts increasingly popular in St. Tammany and other rural parishes

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD --  A motorcyclist putts through a roundabout at La. 59 and La. 36 in Abita Springs on Friday. St. Tammany Parish sports three such roundabouts. The one in Abita, built in 2007, was the first. The others are at Brown's Switch Road and Robert Boulevard in Slidell, and the newest is at U.S. 190 and La. 434 in Lacombe.
Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- A motorcyclist putts through a roundabout at La. 59 and La. 36 in Abita Springs on Friday. St. Tammany Parish sports three such roundabouts. The one in Abita, built in 2007, was the first. The others are at Brown's Switch Road and Robert Boulevard in Slidell, and the newest is at U.S. 190 and La. 434 in Lacombe.

Traffic planners cite safety, better vehicle movement

In the 1985 comedy film “European Vacation,” Chevy Chase’s character Clark W. Griswold finds himself, along with his family, caught in an English traffic intersection known as a roundabout. As they circle, Chase repeats the same refrain.

“Look kids, Parliament, Big Ben!”

Those words — uttered first in wonder, then frustration, and finally resignation as the Griswolds continue to circle — reflected American unfamiliarity with a common European traffic intersection.

Now, nearly three decades later, roundabouts are popping up more and more frequently on Louisiana roads, often in rural places. The low-speed, circular design has been embraced by state and federal officials who say it’s a safer, more efficient way to move cars through intersections.

Nowhere is that more true than in St. Tammany Parish, home to three traffic circles, all built by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.

But now the parish is set to build one on its own, and there are plans for more.

“They improve traffic flow,” said Ronnie Simpson, a spokesman for Parish President Pat Brister. Earlier this week, Brister’s office announced that construction would begin Tuesday on a $1.013 million roundabout at Francis and Bootlegger roads near Covington. Funds from the project are coming from the parish’s road sales tax. The roundabout is scheduled to be completed in June.

That location was picked because the road that comes into the intersection from the south, Ochsner Boulevard, does not line up with the road that enters the intersection from the north, Francis Road.

The parish could realign Francis Road, but putting in a roundabout reduces the chances of collisions, Simpson said.

Reducing collisions is one of the main benefits of traffic circles, which DOTD asserts can reduce fatal accidents by up to 90 percent and injury accidents by as much as 76 percent over other types of intersections.

But in addition to improving safety, roundabouts allow more cars through intersections at a time and reduce costs associated with the maintenance and replacement of traffic lights, said Rodney Mallett, a spokesman for the DOTD.

“No stopping, more yielding,” is how Mallett described traffic entering a roundabout. Because cars aren’t backed up at a red light, more cars get through the intersection. The increasing prevalence of roundabouts reflects a national trend, Mallett said. However, roundabouts won’t work for every intersection. Large, arterial crossings with three or more lanes moving in both directions would be too chaotic.

That’s why many are being built in rural areas: St. Tammany Parish will have four, including the one the parish is building. Another handful are on the drawing board. But Orleans Parish only has one, the same number as rural Vernon Parish in western Louisiana.

One enthusiastic roundabout supporter is Abita Springs Mayor Greg Lemons. The first roundabout in St. Tammany Parish — and one of the first in the state — opened in 2007 at the intersection of La. 59 and La. 36 in the small town.

Some residents were skeptical.

“Some people just did not like the idea of a roundabout,” he said. People were unsure how it worked and whether it would cause problems, he said.

Those attitudes changed once they got used to it, though. Lemons said he regularly receives comments from people who say how well the circle reduces traffic.

“It’s all smiles out of them now,” he said.