No roundabout debate in Vail | TahoeDailyTribune.com
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No roundabout debate in Vail

Amanda Fehd
Shane Macomber / Vail Daily / A car navigates one of Vail's popular roundabouts, which replaced a four-way stop sign.
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As South Lake Tahoe struggles with its debate on a proposed roundabout at the “Y,” more people are looking at how the European-style intersections have fared in other places.

Take Vail, Colorado, another snowy ski town which sees thousands of tourists a year.

After a 10-year debate, Vail completed its first roundabout in December 1995.

Within a week, the intersection exceeded expectations so much so that longtime opponents acknowledged they were wrong. Ski film pioneer Warren Miller – who fought it tooth and nail – even published a cartoon of himself eating crows in the local paper.

There are now four roundabouts in Vail.

“Since December 1995, there has been great community acceptance with the roundabouts and certainly no backlash from our visiting community,” said Suzanne Silverthorn, spokesperson for the town of Vail.

Vail’s project cost $2.8 million in 1995. It increased car capacity by 56 percent, reduced injuries and accidents by 75 percent, saved the town $85,000 a year on traffic officers and reduced the average delay of each car from 60 seconds to five seconds during peak hours, Silverthorn said.

To this day, the town of Vail has no traffic lights.

Others follow suit

Shortly after Vail’s success, the town of Avon 11 miles away constructed four roundabouts.

“There’s been a virtual explosion of roundabouts in the Vail Valley,” said Ian Anderson, spokesman for the Vail Valley Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau.

There are now more than 12 roundabouts in the region, with more on the way. In the next county over, the town of Breckenridge has roundabout presently under construction.

Vail representatives said the intersections are great in snow, and reduce traffic congestion and serious accidents.

On heavy traffic days in the past it could take 30 minutes to get from Beaver Creek ski area back to the highway, Anderson said. After roundabouts were installed in the place of four traffic lights, that trip now takes five minutes.

Don Rogers, managing editor of the Vail Daily newspaper, said the public loves them and he loves them. He’d much prefer a roundabout on a snowy day, because cars move more slowly through the intersection.

“Snow is a red herring,” Rogers said. “Snow is no more of an issue in a roundabout than it is in a traffic light in terms of slip and slide.”

Anderson agreed.

“You don’t have to come to screeching stops (at a roundabout in the snow),” he said.

Breckenridge town manager Tim Gagen said snow is not a concern to him for the same reasons.

“I think they are going to be – in certain circumstances – shown to be the more effective way of moving traffic and it seems like the mountain towns have been more open to them,” Gagen said.

Other pluses include a lower incidence of serious accidents because cars aren’t approaching each other head on. If there is an accident, it’s a fender bender, Rogers and Anderson said.

Still some challenges

Yet the problem of how to use roundabouts lingers.

Anderson said he’s seen visitors driving through them in the wrong direction.

And in a recent letter to the editor of the Vail Daily, a resident wrote about a debate with another resident on how the intersection should be properly navigated.

“Locals complain all winter (and then summer season, also) about the tourists not knowing the correct procedures, but it appears that many of us locals don’t know either,” wrote Julie C. Weihaupt on May 28. “I’m suggesting that on slow news days, you might want to print a ‘How to’ about the roundabouts. It can’t hurt to have this revisited once a quarter or so.”

When it built its first roundabout, the town of Vail waged a public awareness campaign that ranged from pamphlets to TV commercials to explain how to navigate roundabouts.

Vail’s roundabouts replaced four-way stop signs, but other roundabouts in the Vail Valley replaced stop lights, as proposed in South Shore.

“As much as we said from an engineering standpoint that they were a great solution for Vail, those roundabouts had to prove themselves once they were constructed and operable,” said Silverthorn.

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