Roundabouts hit a speed bump in 2015.
Construction wrapped up this past year on 19 roundabouts on state roads, the smallest number since 2006. Wisconsin Department of Transportation officials said the decline was simply the result of there being fewer plans in 2015 to build or rebuild intersections throughout the state.
“The number of roundabouts opened each year directly relates to the number and type of projects completed in that construction season,” WisDOT spokeswoman Patty Mayers said. “The number of projects that require intersection changes will also vary year to year.”
Mayers added that WisDOT works with local governments and residents when deciding which intersections should be built or rebuilt.
Even so, the number of roundabouts being added to state roads has generally been on the increase since 1999, according to WisDOT data. In the years leading up to 2004, no more than a few roundabouts were being built each year. The jump came in 2005, when the state added 13 roundabouts, WisDOT records show.
After that, roundabouts were being added in double-digit numbers every year. The peak came in 2011, when 50 traffic circles were built in a single year.
A great deal of fluctuation has followed. In 2013, the number dropped to 23 but was back up to 45 the following year. So the dip seen in 2015 was not out of keeping with the recent pattern.
WisDOT officials are now saying they expect yet another rebound this year. The department plans to add 39 roundabouts in 2016 and 24 in 2017.
In total, Wisconsin had 350 roundabouts by the end of 2015, according to WisDOT data. Among the regions with the highest concentration of roundabouts are the Milwaukee metro area, Madison, the Fox Valley area and communities at the Wisconsin-Minnesota border near the Twin Cities metro area.
Although proponents insist on their safety, roundabouts have proved to be a source of controversy, especially among state lawmakers.
The Wisconsin Legislature, in its most recent session, considered a proposal that would let local governments block WisDOT plans to build new roundabouts in their jurisdictions. The proposal did not receive a vote.
A bill in 2011 would have subjected roundabouts to referendum votes. After that failed, it was followed, in 2013 and 2015, by similar proposals that would have put the plans under the direct control of local elected officials.
Rep. David Craig, R-Big Bend and author of the 2015 bill to restrict roundabout construction, said the benefits of giving local governments a greater say should be obvious.
“Requiring the governing body of the municipality in question to approve the construction of a proposed roundabout is a commonsense measure because it is these local units of government that truly know their areas best,” Craig said in a statement released last year after he introduced the legislation. “They know local traffic flows, the concerns of the people, business needs, and the types of traffic far better than (WisDOT) bureaucrats in Madison.”
Craig, who is running for a seat in the state Senate, said on Friday that if he wins his election then he would likely reintroduce the bill. He also noted that each time he reintroduces the bill, he gains more support from his colleagues.
Michael Donovan, an alderman for the city of De Pere, has several roundabouts in his district. He said that although his constituents have mixed feelings about the traffic circles, he likes them.
Donovan said it’s well established that roundabouts are safer than other sorts of intersections. When crashes do occur in a roundabout, he said, they are generally less severe because vehicles that are traveling in a circle and all in the same direction cannot T-bone each other.
“They’re safe as far as I’m concerned, and they’re efficient,” he said. Follow @alexzank