Could Roundabouts Help Improve Safety on Highway 49?

AUBURN -- Several deadly crashes on Highway 49 between Auburn and Grass Valley have resulted in demands for safety upgrades to the heavily used roadway.

That has led Caltrans engineers to offer up some novel solutions.

Head-on collisions like the one that killed two Bear River High School students can be prevented with a median barrier, which separates traffic going in opposite directions. But it's not that simple. While concrete barriers are the norm on freeways, Highway 49 has driveways and side roads that feed into it. Drivers would not be able to make a left turn into the highway -- instead they would have to go to the nearest intersection to make a U-turn.

"I don't like it," said Marty Warner, who lives on Highway 49 and needs to turn left onto the highway.

"I'd be making U-turns out of my driveway for sure, definitely not a good idea for me," Warner said.

One solution brainstormed by Caltrans engineers is to use roundabouts that are usually used on residential streets. By getting rid of stop lights on the highway, there would be more of a continuous flow of traffic, making those U-turns more convenient.

The left-hand turn lanes and long waits to turn left off the highway would be a thing of the past.

A two lane roundabout in downtown Roseville doesn't seem to have any problem handling a high volume of traffic. But there could be as many as a dozen of them, every mile and a half or so. Meaning vehicles that now travel freeway speeds would have to slow way down.

"Oh, it would making driving to Roseville an hour, hour and a half long. It would not be, it would cause traffic, way more back up," Warner said.

One issue is the sheer volume and speed of the traffic on certain stretches of Highway 49.

"Some people have a lot of trouble with roundabouts," said Grass Valley resident John Marshall.

Marshall is concerned about travel delays. But he says a roundabout in Grass Valley seems to work even if it does slow traffic down.

"We go to Auburn a lot, so that's going to slow everything down, but if it would make things safer, I'd be fine with that," Marshall said.

But most locals say a better safety solution would be to widen the narrow sections to four lanes. However, that could encourage speeding, which is already a problem.

The median barrier and roundabout idea would be very expensive and Caltrans isn't sure if it would work. And because it's only a concept, don't expect any of it to happen for years, if at all.

Meanwhile, plans to widen parts of the highway and safety measures like speed monitors will continue to be installed.