Lake Elsinore officials are exploring the use of European-style roundabouts as a way to unravel knotted intersections and freeway ramps on the city’s south side.
If the plan proceeds, the conversion of five conventional intersections into roundabouts would be the first project of its kind in a vast region. City leaders say federal highway officials have described the area split by Interstate 15, Diamond Drive and Railroad Canyon Road as one of the thorniest traffic conundrums west of the Mississippi River.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” City Manager Grant Yates said in a recent telephone interview. “It just makes sense. The cars don’t stop (in a roundabout). They just keep moving. If this happens, it will put us on the map as far as transportation projects.”
He said Lake Elsinore’s exploration of such a novel approach to a vexing traffic problem can be seen as an embodiment of its “Dream Extreme” motto.
An analysis, in which roundabouts may emerge as the option with the lowest price tag and fewest construction impacts, will cost $2.2 million. That funding has come from fees paid by developers to offset regional traffic impacts.
City concerns over the interchange and its congested access streets span more than a decade. Some early improvements – including work done from January 2004 until June 2005 – provided scant relief as the area’s growth surge intensified.
The city is seeking ways to end gridlock conditions that can occur in the area during evening commuting periods and when lake activities or Storm baseball games attract large crowds. Those high volume periods can create long lines of vehicles exiting the freeway and snarl street traffic at a string of busy intersections.
Traffic around the interchange has the dubious distinction of falling into the most congested category of a six-tier rating system, according to a city staff report. Lines of cars exiting the freeway, especially those headed in a southbound direction, can sometimes stretch for “several miles,” the report says.
The frequent gridlock is seen as a regional circulation problem because Railroad Canyon Road is a crucial corridor that connects I-15 with Canyon Lake, Menifee and Perris. It is a key link between the pair of north-south freeways that bisect western Riverside County.
A series of steps that unfolded over several years have set the stage for Lake Elsinore to examine roundabouts as a fix for the “heavily congested” area, said Ati Eskandari, a consulting engineer who is serving as the city’s project manager.
The congestion is intensified by the short distances between the freeway exit and entrance ramps and the three nearby intersections – Grape Street/Summerhill Drive, Casino Drive/Auto Center Drive and Lakeshore Drive/Mission Trail. Those five intersections are squeezed into an area that spans about one-half mile from end to end.
The short distance between intersections chokes the flow of traffic because few vehicles can queue up in each segment. The problems are intensified when impatient drivers enter crowded intersections and then block the flow of vehicles when traffic signals change from yellow to red.
The project study is unfolding as the city basks in the afterglow of its 125th anniversary of incorporation. The city’s growth has been among the fastest in the state based on percentage of change. The population of the 43-square-mile city has roughly tripled from about 19,000 in the early 1990s to nearly 57,000 today.
That explosive growth surge is expected to continue well into the future. Only about 30 percent of the land in the city has been developed, according to city documents. About 15,000 acres of land is available for development, and the population of the city and the surrounding land it could annex may soar to nearly 319,000 by 2030, documents show.
In early 2006, Lake Elsinore contracted with an engineering firm to examine potential long-term improvements to the area around the interchange. In 2010 and early the following year, the city joined the Riverside County Transportation Commission, which allocates traffic-related developer fees and sales tax revenues, in examining the area’s difficulties.
Work on the study stalled, however, as state and federal transportation agencies added new requirements for such reviews. Lake Elsinore later urged the commission to resume work on the project approval and environmental impact documents. In November, the city noted that 13 of the 33 required technical reports needed to be updated in order for the project study work to be completed.
A key step came early this year when Caltrans officials decided to include roundabouts in their mix of congestion-easing options for fast-growing regions throughout the state. That decision prompted Lake Elsinore to shift its thinking in that direction.
“That’s what got us excited,” Eskandari said.
In February, city, county, state and federal officials gathered in Lake Elsinore to examine the area and discuss whether roundabouts might ease the gridlock conditions.
On March 25, Yates and Eskandari won City Council approval on two key actions centering on the congested interchange and surface streets.
The council approved an agreement with Caltrans to proceed with the construction of an additional exit lane for southbound traffic on I-15. The cost of that work is expected to total about $800,000, according to city officials. Caltrans agreed to pay $500,000 of that cost and the rest came from county sales tax revenues that are earmarked for regional transportation projects.
Another short-term fix targeted the timing of the traffic lights at the five existing intersections. Past efforts to synchronize the signals ran into difficulty because some of the traffic lights are under Caltrans’ jurisdiction and others are operated by the city.
At the same meeting, council members directed city engineers, RCTC, Caltrans and other agencies to include roundabouts in the long-term improvements study.
At that time, Lake Elsinore engineers estimated that conventional means of increasing the area’s traffic capacity would cost $64 million to $71 million. Of that amount, $15 million to $22 million would be needed to buy the properties needed to add new traffic lanes and signals and construct other conventional improvements.
Conversely, the cost of replacing the existing five intersections with roundabouts was estimated at about $15 million.
City staff said in a report that it has not been able to identify a similar use of roundabouts in California, and federal and state highway officials are “very excited” about helping Lake Elsinore with its design, funding and public education efforts.
In May, county transportation commissioners voted to increase the amount of the project study funds to $2.2 million. The remainder of the study work is expected to take about 1½ years, according to a commission staff report.
Yates and Eskandari said the city will seek public input at key points in the project study. A meeting to unveil the concept is expected to be held in August or September.
“We know we need a lot of public outreach,” Yates said.
Yates and Eskandari acknowledged that few local drivers have been exposed to roundabouts, especially those located at freeway ramps or transition through a series of intersections.
If the roundabout project proceeds, a detailed public education process and an abundance of signs will be needed to eliminate driver uncertainty or confusion, they said.
“There’s a lot of focus that’s going to be given to those issues,” Eskandari said. “The biggest part is getting the general public to drive it without panicking.”
Roundabouts are prevalent in Europe. They are essentially traffic circles in which drivers must yield to oncoming vehicles before they cautiously enter and then exit onto the road of their choice. All vehicles circle the roundabout in the same direction.
It is not unusual for European drivers to pass through a string of roundabouts as they crisscross a village or city.
Roundabouts are far less common, however, in California and the United States. Many Riverside County cities and communities do not have any roundabouts.
There are two roundabouts in the Temecula area.
The most heavily-traveled of those roundabouts is at Anza and Rancho California roads in the Temecula wine country. County planners replaced a conventional intersection with a roundabout there several years ago in order to eliminate the need for drivers to come to a complete stop as they approached from different directions.
The other roundabout is on a low-volume city street tucked behind a shopping center that flanks Temecula Parkway and is the site of a Home Depot store.
John Standiford, deputy executive director of the county Transportation Commission, said roundabouts have also popped up in Cabazon, La Quinta and some other desert communities.
“I think it’s a relatively new strategy,” Standiford said in a recent telephone interview.
He said it will be interesting to see if a string of roundabouts proves to be a workable solution for Lake Elsinore and such a conversion is funded and built.
“It is a challenging location,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”