Change may be coming to Baltimore - in a roundabout sort of way.
The Dixon administration is asking Congress to help pay for five new traffic circles to replace conventional intersections in some of the city's most heavily traveled corridors - a plan that would bring Baltimore in line with the state and surrounding counties.
The $22.8 million roundabout request is part of $294.8 million in earmarks the city is seeking in the multiyear federal transportation spending bill up for renewal this fall. But even if the Maryland congressional delegation cannot put the projects in the spending package, the city request signals an important change in Baltimore's approach to traffic management - and a new challenge for drivers.
"It's a new way of thinking in the city," said Jessica Keller, chief of planning for the city Department of Transportation. "It's going to take a lot of education with the public."
The proposed roundabouts are in some of Baltimore's most visible corridors. One of them is at Key Highway and Light Street - the gateway to Federal Hill, Locust Point and the rest of South Baltimore. Two are proposed for 33rd Street, near Lake Montebello and at University Parkway.
A roundabout at Park Circle would replace one of the city's most troubled intersections, where Reisterstown Road, Druid Park Drive and Park Heights Avenue come together. Another, in Seton Hill, would reconfigure the junction of Druid Hill Avenue and Paca and Centre streets.
Baltimore is estimating the total cost of the projects at $28.5 million.
A sixth roundabout, in planning but not in the administration's request, could be built where Maryland Avenue, Mount Royal Avenue and Cathedral Street come together, Keller said.
Whether the circles would be single-lane or double-lane has not been determined, but Keller said the Park Circle and Light Street roundabouts would almost certainly require two lanes. Seton Hill would likely be one-lane, and the others are up in the air.
The traffic circles are unpopular with many drivers, some of whom believe they are more dangerous than conventional intersections.
"It's not a safety feature, it's a convenience feature," said John Kinney, who frequently navigates roundabouts near his home in Laurel. "A stop sign would be better. People are less likely to go through a stop sign."
But highway engineers say the results show otherwise. According to the State Highway Administration, there has never been a fatal accident at an intersection that has been replaced with a roundabout. The agency said serious injuries have been reduced by 85 percent at such locations, while total crashes are down by 60 percent.
"We can't say enough good about them," said state highway spokesman Dave Buck. "The experience has been nothing but positive."
Such traffic circles have become common in Maryland's counties since the state's first was built in the western Howard County town of Lisbon in 1993, but the city has been slower to change. There are currently two in the city - one on Wilkens Avenue in Southwest Baltimore and one at the end of President Street in Harbor East - but neither is in a heavily traveled corridor that carries a high volume of traffic.
The type of roundabout the city wants to install is different from New Jersey-style rotaries or from the signal-controlled traffic circles common in Washington.
Maryland's roundabouts, which have proliferated throughout the state, operate on a single nugget of circular logic: Vehicles entering the roundabout yield to those already there.
Highway engineers say the roundabouts' design makes it virtually impossible to have a deadly head-on or T-bone crash. Most of the collisions that do occur cause nothing more than property damage, Buck said.
"We will take fender-benders any day," he said.
That hasn't made roundabouts an easy sell, however. Some drivers find the traffic patterns confusing, and it's common to see motorists in the circles gumming up traffic flow by coming to a dead stop at the sight of another vehicle waiting to enter.
Baltimore-area drivers often point to the double-lane roundabout that brings together York Road, Dulaney Valley Road, Allegheny Avenue and Joppa Road in Towson as a particularly infamous example.
Buck allowed that the Towson roundabout is a particularly challenging example - and one the state had to go back and re-engineer because of driver confusion. But he said the bottom line is that there have been no deaths and fewer injuries at what was once a dangerous intersection.
Tom Hicks, director for the SHA's Office of Traffic and Safety, said the Towson roundabout is an anomaly because it's more oval in shape than round - a feature that lets drivers go faster than in more conventional circles. State figures show there was an increase in total accidents after it first opened in 1998, but a decrease in crashes resulting in injuries. In 2007, the last full year for which the state has figures, there were no injury crashes.