Juneau and Douglas Island residents eager to relieve traffic congestion will get their first chance to try the Douglas Highway and Bridge roundabout on July 4, if construction goes as planned, said a Department of Transportation and Public Facilities official.
Engineering manager Pete Bednarowicz said the roundabout should be open soon, though construction on the sidewalks and portions on the bridge will continue through August.
Predictions on whether the new circle roadway will ease traffic or block vehicles and cause accidents has been the talk of Douglas Island ever since construction began in October.
"In the first week or so there will be a lot of gladiatorial games," said Roger Booth, a clerk at the Breeze-In, a grocery, liquor and deli store at the intersection.
Booth said the store has had fewer customers since portions of the road have been ripped up and zoned off for construction.
"People don't know how to get to our parking lot," said Booth, looking at a kaleidoscope of red cones and scattered gravel.
The concept is that cars would enter the intersection by driving into a circle that flows counter-clockwise. Vehicles should yield to oncoming traffic but not stop unless necessary.
"They have to slow down a little," Bednarowicz said. The recommended speed limit will be 20 mph.
The project, including renovations to the bridge, has cost the state $2.37 million, and Southeast Alaska construction company SECON was awarded the contract, Bednarowicz said.
Earlier this week, residents were mailed a postcard with a diagram of the roundabout and detailed instructions on how to pass through the circle.
"I don't think I'll really understand it until it's all done," said Tiffany Lee, who works at the Douglas Cafe.
Roundabouts have sprouted in Anchorage and across the country as alternatives to four-way stop-sign and red-light intersections.
South Douglas resident Chris Watson said he has driven on roundabouts before but never seen them used in congested areas where traffic comes predominately from one direction; in this case south Douglas.
"Less than 20 percent of the traffic comes from north Douglas," said Watson, yet the roundabout requires south Douglas traffic to yield to incoming cars from the north.
Watson said the roundabout could have been designed better with a separate merging lane for south Douglas traffic onto the bridge so morning traffic would not be congested. A separate right-turn lane for bridge traffic headed north is included, but not for south traffic turning onto the bridge.
"I strongly feel the way this is designed it will be a disaster," Watson said.
According to a Web site devoted to roundabouts in Alaska and elsewhere, www.alaskaroundabouts.com, Anchorage saved $1 million in construction costs and bills that normally apply to signalized intersections.
The Web site says accidents were reduced for intersections where roundabouts were built in other states, though no such data were available for Alaska.
Andrew Petty can be reached at email@example.com.