WILLMAR - Local drivers are about to get much more familiar with navigating through a traffic roundabout.
Construction starts this summer on three roundabout intersections, all on the west edge of Willmar.
Two of them - at U.S. Highway 12 and Kandiyohi County Road 5 and at Highway 12 and First Avenue Southwest - are Minnesota Department of Transportation projects being undertaken in conjunction with a multimillion-dollar railroad bypass that starts this year and includes realignment of a portion of Highway 12. Both roundabouts will be completed in 2020.
The third is a Kandiyohi County Public Works project, the construction of a $1.6 million roundabout at County Roads 5 and 15 on the southwest edge of Willmar. It will open to traffic this fall.
All three mark a change for Kandiyohi County, which until two years ago didn't have a single roundabout.
They've been accompanied by sometimes-heated public debate about the pros and cons.
But engineers say it's for the better, citing evidence that roundabouts help lower the rate of severe crashes and reduce the headaches of stop-and-go traffic.
"Nobody has to stop," said Mel Odens, Kandiyohi County Public Works director. "You can keep traffic flow moving, which is what people want."
Roundabouts are being embraced with growing frequency across Minnesota - at last count, there were more than 200 statewide - but they're a late arrival to southwestern Minnesota.
"Roundabouts are relatively new for us here in District 8," said Mandi Lighthizer-Schmidt, director of public engagement for the Minnesota Department of Transportation in District 8, which covers the southwestern region.
The district's first two roundabouts were built several years ago east of Hutchinson.
Locally, the ice was broken in 2017 when the first roundabout in Kandiyohi County was built at U.S. Highway 71 and Minnesota Highway 7 south of Willmar, a location with a long history of severe and fatal crashes.
The roundabout replaced a set of traffic signals. In the two years since it opened, it has functioned "very, very well," Lighthizer-Schmidt said. "We're really pleased with the performance."
It's part of an overall effort by MnDOT, echoed by many local jurisdictions, to seek out and implement opportunities for road designs that enhance safety.
Roundabouts increasingly have become one of the options on the table, said Lighthizer-Schmidt. "They're used at intersections where we're having high-speed crashes and fatalities."
Safety was a similar consideration for Kandiyohi County Public Works as options were weighed for the intersection at County Roads 5 and 15.
The intersection has a history of crashes and a crash rate that's six to seven times above the baseline, Odens said.
"As a road authority, we have an obligation to evaluate this and fix it," he said.
Opting for a roundabout was a bit of a leap for Kandiyohi County's highway department, Odens acknowledged. "We've never done one."
But it meets all the right objectives for safety and function, he said. "Our goal has always been this western bypass, good access to the industrial park and safety for the driver. We feel that we're checking the boxes here."
Roundabouts have their share of detractors. One frequent criticism: They can actually increase the crash rate.
To some extent, statistics bear this out. A 2017 study by the Minnesota Department of Transportation of 144 roundabouts across the state found a significant increase in the number of crashes, most notably sideswipe crashes and multi-vehicle crashes.
But the same study also found an 86 percent reduction in fatal crashes and an 83 percent reduction in crashes that resulted in serious injury. Right-angle crashes, one of the most deadly types of collisions, also were reduced 36 percent.
Studies of roundabout safety in other states have produced similar findings: Crashes that result in property damage often (but not always) go up while severe and fatal crash rates in most cases go down.
Speed is often a factor in the worst crashes, and roundabouts help reduce this, Lighthizer-Schmidt said. "It really slows people down."
Engineers and safety experts also point to the physics: A conventional intersection contains 32 conflict points where vehicles potentially can collide while merging, diverging or crossing. In a roundabout, the number of conflict points is reduced to just eight.
Driver behavior matters as well. The MnDOT study, and studies in other states, found several crashes in which vehicles plowed through the center median, left the road or, in a handful of cases, struck a pedestrian, and noted that many of these crashes involved unsafe speeds, driver inattention or impairment.
"We're always talking about how we can help people notice and be aware of their surroundings," Lighthizer-Schmidt said. "There's only so much you can engineer for. We really encourage people to not be distracted when they're driving."
Those who don't like roundabouts are unlikely to be convinced by any argument in their favor.
As drivers encounter them more often, however, most will probably become more comfortable with them, Odens said. "I don't think that it's going to be a surprise. Just follow the car ahead of you and stay in line."
Design features can help minimize some of the most common complaints about roundabouts, he said.
For example, the new roundabout at County Highways 5 and 15 will contain a low curb and extra-wide lanes that make it easier for trucks to maneuver, he said. ""There's subtle things that make it more operational. A lot of times you can fix what people don't like within the standard."
A key challenge for the roundabout planned at U.S. Highway 12 and Kandiyohi County Road 5 was how to accommodate truck traffic, especially the super-long trailers that haul wind turbine blades and towers.
Mindful of this, engineers developed 24-foot entrance lanes to the roundabout. That's far wider than the standard, said Aaron Warford of Bolton and Menk, the firm tasked to work with MnDOT on the design of the two roundabouts to be constructed on Highway 12.
Speaking last month to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners, Warford pointed to another plus: the ability of roundabouts to accommodate ebbs and flows in traffic, especially with future development anticipated in Willmar's industrial park once the railroad bypass is completed.
"Roundabouts tend to serve traffic better through growth cycles," he said.
With no stop signs or traffic signals to contend with, motorists also can keep moving, Odens said.
"Traffic movement is what people want," he said. "They don't want to be slowed down or stopped."
So will there be more traffic roundabouts in Kandiyohi County's future?
Odens figures it will depend on the specific intersection and traffic needs.
"You don't want to overuse them because it tends to not be as effective," he said. "You've got to take an objective look at the situation and what we're trying to resolve."
He's optimistic, however, that the public will accept the presence of roundabouts - and surveys in other localities have in fact found that support for roundabouts usually rises after they're installed and drivers become accustomed to them.
"I've gotten nothing but positive feedback," Odens said of the county's upcoming project, which starts this month. "It's encouraging."