Why’d DOT Put a Roundabout Here?

January 6, 2016

Citizen Scoops

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DOT Roundabout

Unfortunately, you’ll have to ask your lawmaker. And good luck with that.

South Carolina’s Department of Transportation, as readers of this website know, is neither run by nor accountable to the state’s chief executive – the governor. Instead, priorities are set by the Department of Transportation (DOT) Commission, an eight-member board consisting almost entirely of legislative appointees. And before to any candidate for the Commission can be elected by a delegation, he or she must first be screened and approved by another legislative body known as the Joint Transportation Review Committee.

All of which is to say: If you have a question or concern about the Department of Transportation’s policies and priorities, you can’t go to the governor’s office. You have to go to your lawmaker. But since the lines of accountability are so diffuse or non-existent, your lawmaker will almost certainly not have any answers. Leaving you scratching your head.

We were reminded of this recently when we were forwarded the email chain below. A resident of Dorchester County, John Halley, had an entirely reasonable question: Why did DOT put a roundabout Highway 61 from Charleston to Branchville? According to Halley, (a) the road was a hurricane evacuation route and the roundabout has slowed traffic to a halt, (b) the public wasn’t apprised of the change, and (c) the roundabout – according to the Dorchester County resident – was completely unnecessary. Halley asked his state senator, Sean Bennett, and three Dorchester County Councilors.

Tell us if you think his question was answered satisfactorily. Or if it was answered at all.


From: John Halley

To: David Chinnis; Sean Bennett; Larry Hargett; Carroll Duncan; Jay Byars
Subject: Who controls the DOT

The Nerve recently reported on a number of places around the state in which roundabouts and other road changes were built where no public discussion was allowed. There seems to be growing frustration with government in general that does not listen to the public.

Does it not seem odd that the Department of Transportation, which is responsible for public safety on our highways, seemed have given no thought to placing an obstruction in the middle of a state road designated as a “Hurricane Evacuation Route”? I’ve now seen plans for constructing more of these on other sections of highways with the same designation. I was told that the intentional design of a roundabout is to limit and slow the amount of traffic through them. If the purpose of the evacuation routes is to assist in rapidly evacuating entire populations from our area, I’d be curious to know exactly how that will work with these so-called improvements.

To date, I’ve been unable to get direct answers from anyone at DOT to explain their decisions to spend our money on the Route 61 roundabout. Have any of you heard more from them to explain why these roundabouts are being built on high speed state highways? By the way, if you check the one on Route 61, you will see tire tracks all over the center divider. At some point, it will be a vehicle, not the divider. I’m just once again pointing out what seems to be the obvious, but perhaps only to me.

Hope you all had a wonderful Christmas. Best wishes for the New Year.

John Halley


From: Sean Bennett

To: David Chinnis; Sean Bennett; Larry Hargett; Carroll Duncan; Jay Byars
Subject: Who controls the DOT

John,

Good morning and Merry Christmas!

The design of a roundabout has far more to do with keeping traffic flowing where streets intersect than managing speed. From that aspect it seems that their use on an evacuation route, or any route where congestion exists, would be prudent. In sitting in on several DOT and public hearings, I have found the resistance to roundabouts has much more to do with unfamiliarity and inexperience than with the actual design effectiveness.

I cannot speak to the widespread use of public input but have been satisfied that DOT is listening to the public in our area. As you would expect, that does not automatically translate into every member of the public getting their ideas enacted or even being satisfied with the results. But our regional DOT representatives have been accessible.

Now, with respect to your specific concern on Highway 61, there is a nuance that I am not comfortable with and I am investigating. I am open to being corrected by anyone on this email, but as I understand it, the Highway 61 roundabout at Summers Road was installed by the developer after DOT granted a design exception (my wording not theirs). No state money was used in that construction, and again, as I have been told, there is no public comment required when state money is not used. I believe that there should be some process when a public road is altered and will be including that line of questioning during the confirmation hearings of interim DOT Secretary Christy Hall in January.

Have a great week,

Sean M. Bennett

 


From: John Halley

To: Sean Bennett; David Chinnis ; Larry Hargett ; Carroll Duncan ; Jay Byars; Michael Rose Subject: Re: Who controls the DOT

Sean, perhaps you can get some specific answers from DOT. I’ve heard a number of suggested answers, but no specific ones directly from the department and it is my understanding that they are responsible for all changes to state highways. There are many generalities cited about the use of roundabouts, but I am addressing specific locations and have heard no answers to my specific questions about the appropriateness of the one just built on Route 61 at Summers Road. Are you suggesting that a housing developer can build whatever they want without any public input because they put up the money? Whether bureaucrats at DOT thinks that is acceptable or not is probably not what the public they serve thinks. To dismiss the public’s concerns or to believe that there is no public right to their input would seem pretty arrogant to me.

As I am sure that you know, the use of roundabouts is a controversial public issue around the country, not just here. I would also like to get confirmation about any and all money spent, including workers used, in this construction. I realize you are just repeating what you are being told, but I also hope that you will take the position of advocate for the public, not the government. Whether DOT agrees or not, their position should be secondary to the public will and at the moment, we don’t know even know what that is for sure.

Can you get DOT to tell us specifically what their studies say the volume of exiting traffic on these state highways might be in the event of a declared evacuation? Then what amount of flow, including large trucks, can pass through this specific roundabout in an hour. I’ve already seen incidents in perfect whether when the west bound lane was backed up for nearly a mile. That is rare, but the issue is about emergency use. How does a roundabout – which requires people to stop and can’t be changed in emergencies like a stop light and is specifically designed (their words) to slow traffic through the intersection to allow safe ingress – provide more efficient exiting of the population? I find that a little difficult to understand. One might also note that Summers Road itself would become a fairly heavy flow into this intersection when that huge housing development is completed, adding to the traffic come west out of Charleston.

I will again add that there is evidence today that some vehicles are already not negotiating that roundabout without running up on the center dividers, and this is in good weather. I understand the arguments for and against roundabouts and do not disagree that there are appropriate locations for them, but I remain concerned about placing them out in the middle of high-speed highways. Maintenance might be cheaper than stop lights, but there are places where I am unconvinced that they don’t present more of a hazard than a public road improvement. Speed bumps also have a place, but they, too, can be a hazard in the wrong places. I have seen way too many instances around the country when government generalities end up costing lives and then taking years to correct them. We were told for decades that traffic circles were the answer until the road deaths became too high to accept and they were removed. Now we hear similar contentions about roundabouts.

I remain open to all input on this subject, but like most businessmen I prefer facts to opinions. What works in one place is not the answer for all and the more that we know about such road construction may save lives. What I think is not important either, and that is why I am seeking answers from real experts, not government administrators who will simply tell us what policy is. Policy can be changed and so should some administrators.

I appreciate your prompt response and continued pursuit of the issue. I look forward to hearing more about what is being done to hold DOT more responsive to the public.

Sincerely
John Halley


From: Jay Byars
To: Sean Bennett
Cc: John Halley ; David Chinnis ; Larry Hargett ; Carroll Duncan
Subject: Re: Who controls the DOT

Mr. Halley,

Below is some information regarding the issue from the planning director of Dorchester County I have copied for your information. Have a nice day.

Senator Bennett’s points are correct. Westvaco should be credited, however, with early and frequent engagement with the Victoria Pointe HOA [homeowners’ association]. Westvaco had to buy land from the HOA for the project and will, I understand, restore the buffer along SC-61 that was wrecked by deficient stormwater infrastructure (later rectified) in Victoria Pointe. Also worth mentioning, the Summers Corner roundabout appeared as an agenda item at both Planning Commission and County Council, for a determination of comprehensive-plan consistency and right-of-way acquisition, respectively. It might be worth noting that intersection improvements, such as new neighborhood entrances with turn lanes, appear before planning commissions from time to time under their authority for land development review. Because of the East Edisto Development Agreement, Dorchester County Planning Commission could not have rejected the roundabout. (It expressed no desire to.) All transportation improvements appear before Planning Commission, as required by state law.

 


 

From: John Halley
To: Sean Bennett
To: David Chinnis; Sean Bennett; Larry Hargett; Carroll Duncan; Jay Byars
Subject: Re: Who controls the DOT

Thanks for the info Jay. My specific questions from my subsequent note remain and I look forward to hearing the answers to them.

Also, now that you mention it, there seems to be some question about what can be rejected on public highways and what cannot. From my own perspective, which will hold little sway I am sure, I could care less what DOT bureaucrats think or what their policies are or even what county officials think, for that matter. These are public issues whether those we hire to carry them out agree or not. It really becomes more of an issue of making them known to the public.

I don’t live in Victoria Pointe and they aren’t the only users of Highway 61. Prior to the creation of this roundabout, traffic followed freely and directly to Alt. 17. There were no new entrances or roads. These were existing ones that intersected there. There were no traffic incidents I’m aware of, and the traffic during most of the day is quite light on that section of Rt. 61. Now there is an obstruction. This looks like more of marketing technique than a traffic necessity. It is hard to see how this improved anything and I’ve heard no answers to the questions of emergency evacuation. All county residences hope that those they elect are there to represent their views, not those of state bureaucrats, developers (some not even from our state), or others who don’t necessarily care what is in our best interests.

While some within the county may have been advised, I am not aware of any public postings of this change to the highway. I may have missed it, but even so, I hope that my own representatives are looking to protect our interests, not those of developers, and will fight for us at every meeting. The last thing I want personally is to have a contentious relationship with the very people we elected to help us. I appreciate the answers I have gotten thus far, but this should not be a defensive discussion of what happened. Hopefully we can learn what actually did happen and what we can do to either correct it or prevent these things in the future. I would also agree that there may be things we don’t know that made this roundabout necessary, but I have yet to hear any kind of explanation to address it or that even makes sense.

Thanks for your involvement and service to our community.

John Halley