Traffic and trash: finding a way to temper both within the territory could be as easy as reconfiguring a few of the major local intersections into roundabouts, said Mayor Jim Brainard, who’s been recognized nationally for a similar initiative he’s undertaken in Carmel, Indiana.
Well, maybe not “easy,” exactly. Without delving into the logistics – money, and approval from the Federal Highway Administration, among other things – of changing the traffic flow, Brainard offered a series of observations after a recent tour around St. Croix that, based on his own experience, could give us a little economic edge. Along with the construction of roundabouts, which he said are “absolutely feasible,” simple beautification and some smart city-planning to avoid the “sprawl” that is often attributed to certain spaces on St. Thomas, in particular, were at the top of the list.
The city’s efforts are featured in this 2021 article in the New York Times with the subheadline “An Indiana city has the most roundabouts in the country. They’ve saved lives and reduced injuries from crashes — and lowered carbon emissions.” Fast forward through and what you’ll learn is that each roundabout has: saved the Carmel 20,000 gallons of fuel annually; reduced the need for electricity for things like stoplights, which is helpful during and after major storms; and, by 2020, helped to lower vehicular fatalities to 1.9 (that’s like, two) per 100,000 people.
Carmel’s population is close to 102,000, a little more than the combined total of the entire U.S. Virgin Islands. And while it can be argued that there are stark differences in demographics, topography, etc., between us and the fourth largest city in Indiana, Brainard said the considerations are really more simple: do we want to save lives, cut down our expenses, and be more environmentally conscious? Well, of course.
Carmel wasn’t built in a day – in fact, it took Brainard and his team about 20 years to get to where they are now – but starting out, he suggested pulling up traffic statistics for every intersection in the territory, seeing which ones are the most dangerous and coming up with a plan from there.
Some data to add in: every traffic light with pedestrian controls costs about $400,000 and needs to be replaced within 20-30 years, while roads cost about $10-$12 million per every two-lane mile to maintain. Think about the additional savings from that perspective, he suggested.
Meanwhile, the creation of roundabouts can go hand-in-hand with another piece of the economic puzzle: city planning. A proponent of maintaining the original beauty of a space, Brainard said he was struck on his visit last month by the preservation of many of the territory’s more historic and unique features – step-streets, alley-ways, smaller family-owned businesses – and offered that a plan to complement the changes in traffic flow with the development of more clustered towns could be beneficial. Then, you don’t have to make eight or nine stops cross-island on a grocery run, for example, putting extra cars on the roads and increasing the need for more private and public facilities like fire stations, gas stations, etc.
By the way, it costs about $8-$10 million a year to staff a fire station in Carmel, he added.
“In a smaller town, you don’t need as many of those public buildings, you don’t need to widen the roads, but you get the same investment and maintain the beauty of the island,” Brainard said. Later, integrating parks, walking, or bike trails helps develop a greener, healthier space that is also – surprise! – less expensive to maintain, while the surrounding land can be turned into conservation easements, he added.
“As you develop, it is important to look at that development from a health and walkability perspective,” according to the mayor.
Food for thought?