Like other locals, Hays resident Richard Lamb takes the back way to Walmart, by driving Hall Street and skipping Vine.
“I try to avoid Vine, so I go around,” Lamb said. “It avoids all the traffic.”
Lamb was one of about 155 people who showed up Tuesday evening for a city-sponsored open house at Thirsty’s and The Venue, 2704 Vine.
People in the larger-than-expected crowd saw a conceptual design authorized by the Hays City Commission for four roundabouts on Vine Street, and talked to city officials and engineers from design firm WSP.
The event started at 5:30 p.m. and by 6 p.m., 100 people already had arrived, said Melissa Dixon, executive director of the Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Milling around with everybody else, Lamb recalled that the first time he drove through a traffic roundabout was 20 years ago in Vermont.
“I came up to this roundabout and I didn’t really know what to do. I thought, ‘What’s this?’” he said. “I didn’t like it the first time through.”
Then he figured it out.
“After I went through it a few times it was great,” Lamb said. “You slow down and pay attention and observe the yield signs and it’s easy. They’re great, traffic doesn’t slow, there are no stoplights, and you just pay attention and everything is fine. Now they are popping up everywhere. Once this is done it’s going to be slick.”
Preliminary design on the roundabouts will be complete in the next month or two, with final plans done by November, say city staff. Right-of-way acquisition will start in May. Construction will start the summer of 2020, and finish up the end of 2021.
“I actually think they’re a good thing,” said Lisa Unrein at the open house. She and her husband, Brad Unrein, were watching a big-screen video simulation of vehicles on Vine Street driving the roundabouts.
Right now one of the big problems on Vine is that it’s hard for drivers to pull out from the frontage roads, she said.
The Unreins have driven a roundabout in Junction City, as well as others out of state. “I think they’re a good solution,” Lisa said.
People milling around a table in the middle of the reception room were studying a giant-sized poster of the roundabout design, and talking with City Public Works Director Jesse Rohr.
“We weren’t sure what to expect,” Rohr said. “We’re very thrilled at the turnout.”
Labeled U.S. 183 and Vine St., the poster design showed two roundabouts straddling Interstate 70 on either side: one, a teardrop at the eastbound I-70 on- and off-ramps, and the other where 41st and Mopar streets intersect with U.S. 183.
Also represented was a third roundabout further south at the entrance to the former Ambassador Hotel redevelopment. Then at 32nd and 33rd streets, a proposed roundabout is shaped like an hourglass to prevent people from accelerating and going too fast.
Jim Hanks, Hays, recently hung up the keys to his RV after traveling the road with his wife the past six years, covering 100,000 miles across Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, the Carolinas, and up and down the coasts. He’d been looking at the posters Tuesday evening.
“We’re about sixty feet long, stretched out,” Hanks said of his RV. “We’ve encountered many roundabouts through our travels and they are wonderful, we love them. RVers and truckers maneuver through with no problem.”
The roundabouts should make Vine Street safer, said Police Chief Don Scheibler, as the design reduces what he described as the number of conflict points, where vehicles come together, from 32 to eight, and reduce speeds at the intersections. That should cut down the potential for side-impact T-bone wrecks, he said.
“The current design encourages aggressive driving,” Scheibler said, “people try to beat the lights, trying to make left-hand turns onto Vine.”
There are about 31 wrecks a year in the study area, according to the city, most of them at 32nd Street and the west frontage road. The accident rate there is 2.5 times higher than the statewide average for urban intersections, said a handout at the event.
The situation will be better for people on foot too, Scheibler said, most notably all the kids on out-of-town school buses that stop on Vine for fast food.
“School buses park at McDonald’s and kids run across Vine over to Freddy’s,” Scheibler said. “With the roundabouts, there’s a shorter crossing distance, instead of kids crossing five lanes.”
Michelle Jarmer, Hays, was looking over the posters with her step-daughter Samantha Rude, 10.
Jarmer, the manager of Christopher & Banks at Big Creek Crossing, is not convinced. She’s worried not only for her store, but also for others, particularly during the lengthy construction phase, but also once the roundabouts are built.
“I do have concerns. The mall struggles, and I’m concerned with the down time,” Jarmer said. “I do think it probably should have gone to a public vote.”
While she wants to see Hays think about its future, if she were voting today, she’d probably vote ‘no,’ she said. She hopes the project won’t shut down businesses.
“I’m praying to God it doesn’t,” she said. “I just feel a lot for these local businesses that might be impacted. Change is hard, change is hard for western Kansas people.”
Sue Jordan, owner of the restaurant Pheasant Run, 3201 Vine St., said she’s very upset about the roundabouts.
“I don’t know how we’ll live through the construction,” Jordan said. “Businesses just can’t withstand that.”
Mendi Anschutz, Hays, and Howard Rome, Hays, exchanged thoughts on the issue.
Of Vine Street, Anschutz said, “I think it needs to be fixed.”
“I agree with Mendi,” Rome said. “But I guess I’m just scared a little bit about change. It’s just going to take a little patience.”
Anschutz said she came to the open house to get more informed.
“I have no problem with roundabouts,” she said. “My brother lives in Shawnee and he has three near his house. Roundabouts don’t bother me at all.”
The trick to driving one?
“Stay in your lane,” she said.
As for Rome, he’s only driven one in his life, and that was with another passenger in Manhattan not that long ago.
How was it?
“I don’t know,” he laughed. “We were talking so much I don’t remember.”
Don Larson, Hays, retired from Bucher & Willis design firm, cut to the chase.
“I’m against it,” he said. “It just seems like too much on Vine Street. I think it’s going to be confusing, and I think it’s going to be awkward for the through traffic, including the big propellers that go through.”
He drove through the one in Junction City last week.
“It works well,” he said. “But it’s having it on a four-lane highway that I’m concerned about.”
He also has been surprised at how quickly the project has moved, he said.
“This thing, all of a sudden, voom! There’s no stopping it, and there’s no public input as far as opinions,” Larson said. “I don’t think public opinion matters.”
City Project Manager John Braun has said the roundabouts can accommodate large sleeper cab trucks with 53-foot trailers, as well as the long, long trucks and trailers hauling giant blades and tower sections for wind turbines.
The $9.3 million construction project is funded in part with a $6.05 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration that can be spent only on the roundabout project. The rest of the money will come from the bed tax Hays charges hotel and motel guests.
Chris Lofstrom and his four-year-old daughter Marcelyn were making the rounds of the posters. Lofstrom said he was at the open house to learn and gain more information, and to see the plans for the first time.
“I’m not very familiar with roundabouts,” Lofstrom said. “I’ve used them in the past very infrequently. I’m here to see how they would impact our community and the traffic.”
Any reconstruction of a street is tough on businesses, said Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty. During construction, the city will go above and beyond to make sure there’s always access to businesses, as well as clear signage, Dougherty said.
As it is now, Vine is already driving people away, he said.
“It is broken, people do avoid it at certain times of the day now, or they avoid it altogether,” Dougherty said. “And it’s only going to get worse as traffic loads increase. Properties along there are going to become less and less viable, and people will want to locate somewhere else where there’s less congestion.”
Right now, 70 percent of the corridor functions ok, but on the other 30 percent, it’s overloaded, the chance for severe accidents goes up, left turns are impossible, and frustration is on the rise, he said.
“If you’re a local you know all the shortcuts, you know when not to go on Vine Street,” Dougherty said. But that’s not true for travelers from Kansas City to Denver, who stop for a meal and get caught in a traffic tangle, vowing never again, he said.
“Now we’ve just lost a customer for life,” Dougherty said. “Hays could be their stop every time they make that trip, and our sales tax is funded a good portion with people from outside the community, so we depend on those people coming here and spending their money. And every time we drive a visitor away we drive sales tax dollars away, which is not good for any of us.”