June 22, 2018
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Roundabout en route to save dangerous Blue Hill intersection

By Mario Moretto, BDN Staff

BLUE HILL, Maine — Blue Hill is known for its cozy village, its ocean views and the Blue Hill Fair. Soon it will be known as the first town in the county with something rarely seen in rural areas.

Blue Hill is set to become the first town in Hancock County with a roundabout, a road feature designed to keep traffic moving and minimize the risk of motor vehicle accidents.

On Friday, the Maine Department of Transportation awarded a contract to R.F. Jordan & Sons of Ellsworth to replace the traditional four-way intersection that connects the Blue Hill Peninsula with Ellsworth, Deer Isle-Stonington and points beyond.

The Ellsworth contractor was the low bidder, agreeing to do the project for about $842,000.

The state has designated the intersection — where state routes 15, 172, 176 and 175 all meet on Tenney Hill — as a “high-crash location,” according to Paul MacDonald, the DOT’s project manager for the job.

The DOT rates intersections by the number of accidents that occur in a three-year period. Any more than eight makes it a “high-crash location,” Ted Talbot, the DOT’s spokesman, said. According to data from Jan. 1, 2009, through Dec. 31, 2011, the intersection in Blue Hill had 13 accidents, about half of which resulted in an injury.

The roundabout will reduce the number of left-hand turns at the intersection to zero. Since everyone will be going in the same direction, the likelihood of a T-bone accident also decreases. MacDonald said the roundabout will reduce the number of crashes that result in injury by up to 76 percent.

Construction on the project will start late winter or early spring, and MacDonald said the roundabout should be complete by the end of August.

Most people in Blue Hill have supported the roundabout idea since it was first discussed in early 2011, Selectman Jim Schatz said on Tuesday. The intersection is congested and dangerous, especially in the summer, he said.

“It’s the main intersection that bears all the traffic going to the rest of the peninsula and to Deer Isle-Stonington,” Schatz said. “It’s the way commerce takes place, so there’s heavy truck traffic, the lobster shipping, the bait needs, everything is handled there. You add the tourism and the fact that Blue Hill is a service center town, and it all adds up to a dangerous situation.”

While the project may have wide support, there’s some trepidation about the novelty of the roundabout. Many drivers will be unfamiliar with the concept of a traffic circle, unsure of the correct way to enter or exit.

Mia Strong, a Sedgwick resident who grew up in New Jersey, said she’s skeptical of the whole thing.

“I’m not crazy about the roundabout, because I’ve seen what it was like in New Jersey. A lot of towns got rid of them,” she said. “People are clueless about how to navigate them. If people aren’t paying attention, they can cause real road rage.”

Talbot said more and more municipalities are exploring roundabouts for unsafe intersections because they are designed specifically for safety. Traffic signals are an effort to control traffic, he said, but don’t necessarily lower the risk of accidents.

He said many drivers are skeptical at first, like Strong, but grow to accept the roundabouts.

“It’s a common concern among residents,” Talbot said. “They’re strange. Everyone knows how to navigate a red light, but this is new. But we’ve yet to see a community that hasn’t warmed up to it.”

Scott Howell, a Blue Hill resident who said the roundabout is desperately needed, said its disruptive nature is part of the benefit of a roundabout.

“The objection is always that they’re confusing, but that’s their main asset,” he said Tuesday. “People approach with caution.”

MacDonald also said the roundabout in Blue Hill will be easier to navigate than a true “rotary,” which features several lanes of traffic — some entering, some exiting, and some travelling around the circle. Blue Hill’s roundabout will feature only one lane, he said.

“You’ve just got to see one and actually get in it,” MacDonald said. “Once you’re inside a single-lane roundabout like this, all you need to do is know which road you want to be on.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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