Government

Cedar Rapids plans roundabout near Washington High School to ease congestion

Neighbors push back, questioning safety impacts and need; city officials say roundabouts work well near schools

A sidewalk along Cottage Grove Avenue SE, seen Feb. 19 in Cedar Rapids, would be straightened and trees along the road c
A sidewalk along Cottage Grove Avenue SE, seen Feb. 19 in Cedar Rapids, would be straightened and trees along the road cut down under a city plan to resurface Cottage Grove, add a bike path, widen the street and add a roundabout. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — More than a year before work would occur, plans for a roundabout near Washington High School already have residents uneasy.

City officials meanwhile see a road — Cottage Grove Avenue SE — in poor condition, traffic congestion around the morning and afternoon school bell and opportunities to improve the street that sees about 6,000 vehicles per day. The city contends the plan not only would help drivers, but also cyclists and pedestrians, thanks to wider multiuse sidewalks.

“We have a delay problem there,” City Engineer Nate Kampman said. “There’s traffic delay both in the morning and the afternoon, and we think the best solution for that is a roundabout, and that will help that delay problem.”

This would be the third traffic circle near schools in Cedar Rapids, following a roundabout on Kirkwood Boulevard SW near College Community Schools in 2017 and on Johnson Avenue NW near Hoover Elementary in 2018. They are well suited for the types of traffic and uses surrounding schools, according to city planners.

“What’s great about roundabouts is they work really well in areas where you have really concentrated peaks,” said John Witt, a traffic engineer. “They work really well by schools. It’s good for young drivers to be driving through them. Sometimes they don’t make the best choices, but roundabouts help eliminate some of those issues because of the safety improvements that they bring.”

Cedar Rapids has installed five roundabouts since 2017 and has more than five others planned and in design phases.

Critics participate in ‘walkabout’ protest

The latest rift with Cottage Grove neighbors follows a pattern of pushback from motorists and other residents as roundabouts have gained popularity among traffic engineers in Marion, Coralville and elsewhere in Eastern Iowa as a better way to manage traffic and mitigate head-on and broadside crashes.

“My biggest problem is this would ruin the aesthetic in the neighborhood,” said Katie Hill, 54, who lives nearby.

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She helped organize a “walkabout” starting at the Washington parking lot, 2205 Forest Dr. SE, to near First Avenue to raise awareness and share concerns. Around two dozen people — mostly those resistant to a roundabout, tree loss and multiuse path — attended on a bitterly cold Wednesday night.

The latest concept for Cottage Grove is a single-lane roundabout to replace a four-way stop at Cottage Grove and Forest Drive SE bordering the school property and Cottage Grove Place senior living. The plan also calls for reconstructing 0.3 miles of pavement on Cottage Grove from First Avenue to Forest as a more narrow roadway, expanding sidewalks on the north side of the street to a 10- to 12-foot-wide multiuse path, filling in sidewalk gaps, improving traffic signals at Cottage Grove and First Avenue and updating the underground storm sewers to help improve drainage.

The $2 million project would not occur until 2021, followed by a second phase reconstructing Cottage Grove from Forest to 34th Street SE in 2022. The Cottage Grove-Forest intersection work would likely be confined to the summer of 2021 during school break.

City: ‘We really welcome the feedback’

Kampman said the city still is early in the process — a time when concepts are first introduced to local stakeholders and then refined based on their feedback.

“We really welcome the feedback that we’re hearing right now, and we want to hear it so that we can make the best decisions in our design,” he said.

Neighbors are raising questions and asking the city to reconsider the plans.

They say the traffic is not that bad, nor dangerous. The city notes a 10-year average of only about one crash per year, but 90 percent of those crashes could have been avoided by a roundabout, city officials said.

The roundabout would be difficult for young and old drivers and would be an eyesore, neighbors said. They fear the loss of mature oak, pine, ash and maple trees forming a canopy along the road, and that the multiuse path would invite cyclists from the road and create dangerous conflicts with elderly pedestrians.

They welcome repaving and drainage improvements, just not the extras, they said.

“It is great they are repaving Cottage Grove, but we don’t need all of these other projects,” said Steve Keane, 60, who lives nearby. “A well-designed roundabout is a good thing, but you drop it into a neighborhood with a school with young drivers and seniors and then think about how it will look in five years after snow plows go over it, and it doesn’t work here.”

Cottage Grove Place takes issue with plan

Mark Bailey, executive director of Cottage Grove Place, 2115 First Ave. SE, fears for the safety of his residents sharing sidewalks with fast-moving bicycles, cutting down old trees that help make the place home, and new traffic hazards. Congestion is a “minor inconvenience” for 30 minutes in the morning and afternoon, he said.

“They don’t need to make major changes to make it drivable and fit for the area,” he said.

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The city estimates the plan now calls for the removal of only seven to 10 trees, although design is not final. Additional meetings are expected before as the project is revised, city officials said.

“We are also working very hard to save the tree on the northeast corner of Cottage Grove and Forest, which we heard was important to residents,” said Emily Breen, a spokeswoman for the Cedar Rapids public works department.

Representatives for Washington High School and its parent-teachers association did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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