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Roundabout looks different

Jennifer Stultz
Stafford County airplane owner and pilot Larry Fenwick took this picture from the air last week about the roundabout construction at the junction of U.S. Highways 281 and 50 south of St. John. The outer lanes of the project appear nearing completion, but now an inner rotary circle is being added for smaller vehicles to pass through.

Larry Fenwick, like many St. John-area residents, was pretty sure he knew what a traffic roundabout looked like, and when construction began on the new state-financed roundabout where U.S. Highways 281 and 50 intersect south of St. John, he thought he knew what to expect. But Fenwick, like other area residents, have noticed recently that the construction of the Stafford County roundabout is looking a bit different, a bit more involved, a bit more complicated than typical roundabout construction.
"I thought we would have the typical roundabout in which road traffic is permitted to flow in one direction around a central island, and priority is typically given to traffic already in the junction," Fenwick said. "But when I was flying above it in my airplane last week, I saw there is an outer section and now an inner circle. Not sure I've ever seen one like this before."
In March 2019, the Kansas Department of Transportation awarded Venture Corporation of Great Bend the project to a build a new roundabout at the intersection of U.S. 50 and U.S. 281, south of St. John in Stafford County. The project, estimated to cost $5.201 million project was expected to take about 10 months, and happen in three phases, according to Scott Mullen, KDOT area engineer at Pratt.
“During the first phase traffic will stay on the existing U.S. 50 and U.S. 281 lanes and it will continue to operate as it does now,” Mullen said.
During the initial work, the contractor will build a temporary shoofly to the south of U.S. 50 and the east of U.S. 281.
They will also begin building four permanent restricted concrete lanes forming a diamond around the roundabout, called “Tight Flies,” that will be used by large trucks or oversized loads to get through the intersection once the roundabout is in place.
“In phase two, traffic will be switched to the temporary detours, which will include a new intersection with a four-way stop located southwest of the current intersection,” Mullen said.
During that phase, the contractor will tear out the existing highway and tie in the new diamond interchange lanes.
During the third phase, traffic will be put on the new diamond interchange in a counterclockwise direction, using the new lane for traffic to get around the intersection. The contractor will also remove the temporary roads as the roundabout itself is completed.
“They’ll be working from the outside in,” Mullen said.
While weather has impacted some phases of work on the roundabout, what is taking shape now has some observers shaking their heads.
"After I flew over I started asking some questions," Fenwick said. "I was informed that a true inner circle rotary will be the next phase of the construction and this will get real interesting to see exactly how the outer box traffic (likely long semis hauling wind tower parts) and traditional vehicle traffic will pass through the inner rotary intersection. One person I talked to said there will be gates used specifically for long, oversized vehicles passing around the outer box."
Though not officially confirmed, the intersection construction appears to be a combination of roundabout and rotary for ultimate traffic safety.
While observers may question the final outcome of the roundabout construction, most agree that it was a necessary installation at that particular highway intersection.
"Through the years there have been many fatal accidents, despite bumpers in the 281 roadway," Fenwick said. "I'm glad to see a solution for this problem. It will save lives, if it all works out right."
Mullen said work on the project will resume when better weather returns, there is much more concrete to be poured as the roundabout and rotary take shape.
Once completed, the rotary intersection should regulate traffic flow in only one direction of movement, thus eliminating severe conflicts between crossing movements.
All the vehicles entering the rotary will be gently forced to reduce the speed and continue to move at a slower speed. Vehicles will not need to be stopped, unlike in a signalized intersection.
Because of lower speed of negotiation and elimination of severe conflicts, accidents and their severity are much less in rotaries.
Such rotaries are self governing and do not need practically any control by police or traffic signals, plus they are ideally suited for moderate traffic, especially with irregular geometry, or intersections with more than three or four approaches.
 The intersection in question should be functional sometime in the first quarter of 2020.