From steam locomotives and passenger trains to a four-lane highway and, now, a roundabout. That’s the history of Scott County Highway 21 through downtown Prior Lake.
The tracks disappeared in 1980, replaced by Highway 21. By then, the Minnesota Department of Transportation had built a new Highway 13 from Savage that bypassed Main Avenue and the downtown, creating the bottleneck 13-21 intersection that the roundabout will replace when it opens this summer.
I hope it works. I was a skeptic at first, preferring a no-build alternative that would have let traffic get worse until drivers gave up and went somewhere else. I call it the “grumpy old man solution.” It works if you’re a septuagenarian that prefers the steam locomotives and trains that once called on Prior Lake. But then I went to a workshop meeting and was introduced to the project engineer from Bolton-Menk. They’d proposed a roundabout. I liked it and was invited to join the citizen advisory panel.
I’d previously driven roundabouts and their cousins, rotaries and traffic circles, in New York City and Washington, D.C. They can be confusing for the uninitiated. You have to keep your wits about you — unlike some Minnesotans who habitually drive the left lane at 40 mph on a 70 mph freeway. However, once you’ve driven them a few times you’ll appreciate how efficiently they smooth the traffic flow at a uniform speed.
Visit the internet, and you’ll discover that roundabouts aren’t some highway engineering fad. In the 1790s architect and engineer Pierre L’Enfant proposed a number of circular intersections for the new capital in Washington modeled after those in Paris. Then came Columbus Circle in New York City in 1905.
These early designs were termed rotaries. A number of them were built in the 1930s. They required drivers already in the traffic circle to yield to entering traffic. That didn’t work well. The British reversed this in the 1960s with a version that required incoming traffic to yield. It worked, and roundabouts sprouted all over Britain.
Other countries were skeptical, especially the U.S., but after some resistance they caught on. According to a 2015 story in the Star Tribune, there are approximately 30,000 roundabouts in France, 20,000 in Britain and thousands more in Germany, Spain and the Scandinavian countries.
Minnesota got its first roundabout in 1995 and has been adding them steadily. Today, there are 252 in Minnesota.
Scott County’s first roundabout came along in 2005 at the intersection of Highway 13 and County Road 2. It’s been a success. A Scott County study found total crashes per year have been reduced from 6.3 to 1.5, a 76 % reduction, and injury crashes from 4.7 to only one, a 78.7% reduction. Previously, it had two fatalities over a span of five years.
The Federal Highway Administration reported more than 10,000 motorists were killed at intersections in 2018. Most of the fatalities came from head-on or T-bone crashes where another driver ran a red light or was making a turn.
Roundabouts reduce traffic conflicts, but, more important, they reduce speed, which is a huge factor in serious accidents. Highway 21 through downtown Prior Lake has been a stop-and-go raceway. The 13-21 roundabout will slow traffic, making it safer for autos but also pedestrians and cyclists.
There may be some naysayers, but I’m looking forward to it.