Columbus has been approved for the state funding necessary to build the first of several planned roundabouts downtown.
The city council on Tuesday formally accepted a Mississippi Department of Transportation grant to build a small roundabout at Main and Second streets, which is adjacent to Harvey’s Restaurant and a Chevron convenience store. Councilmen also tapped the Neel-Schaffer engineering firm to begin design work for the project.
City Engineer Kevin Stafford, who works for Neel-Schaffer, said the project will also add more curbing and pedestrian access at the intersection, including crosswalks, a sidewalk in front of the convenience store and better pedestrian connectivity from Main Street to the Riverwalk. It calls for reducing traffic, between the roundabout and Fourth Street, to one lane each way with a center turning lane.
Through the grant, MDOT is providing 80 percent of construction costs, or about $717,000. The city’s match will be about $179,000. Construction should begin in 2020, Stafford said.
For 2019, the city has budgeted $103,000 for project design (approved at $88,000) and right-of-way acquisition, none of which can be counted toward its grant match.
Stafford said the design phase could take five to eight months, and the need for right of-way acquisition should be limited.
“Most of the project area is already within MDOT’s right-of-way,” he said. “About the only exceptions look to be right in front of Harvey’s and (a small frontage piece of) the lot across the street used for Harvey’s employee parking.”
The Main and Second Street project is the first of a multi-phase, $4.5 million master plan to improve safety and traffic flow along the Main Street downtown corridor, Stafford said.
Because of the high price tag, Stafford said MDOT has agreed to let the city apply for grants in phases.
“We’re starting here (at Main and Second streets) because 60 percent of the accidents in that corridor happen near that intersection, mostly from people going down the hill (westbound),” Stafford said.
Ultimately, the city hopes to add small roundabouts at Main Street’s intersections with Third and Fourth streets, as well as a large, multi-lane roundabout at Main Street and Second Avenue across from Island Road – which would better flow traffic to The Island or the Lowndes County Soccer Complex.
Planned projects also include pedestrian accessibility improvements at Main’s intersections with Fifth and Sixth streets and reducing the speed limit in the corridor to 20 miles per hour.
“People are speeding through downtown,” Stafford said. “But roundabouts, unlike traffic signals, don’t force you to stop. They just force you to yield. … This also de-conflicts the un-signaled intersections in the corridor where traffic is stopped on (Second or Third Street) waiting for all the traffic to clear out before they can go. With a roundabout, all you have to do is make sure no one is coming from your left.
“So, compared to what we have now, you’d be able to get through downtown in less time, just at a slower speed,” he added.
Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones, in whose ward the project area sits, said people might not like the roundabouts at first but he believes they will prefer them over time.
“They seem to work pretty well in other places I’ve been that has them,” Jones said. “People tend to hate change, but I guess it’s like technology. After a while, they get used to it.”
Jones acknowledged there’s no guarantee for MDOT funding of future projects in the master plan, though he hopes to see the entire vision completed.
“This intersection seems like the most important part because it’s where most of the (downtown) accidents happen,” he said. “So even if we don’t ever get money for the others, I could live with that.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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