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Opinion: Around and around we continue to go

It hardly seems possible, but little over a decade ago, there were no roundabouts in Metro Atlanta.

Today, you can’t gather a head of steam without coming across one. They’re everywhere.

I have one in my driveway.

Governments love roundabouts because they save on the cost of traffic signals which can run anywhere between $80,000 to half a million dollars. That doesn’t include the expense of signal maintenance and diverting police to run traffic control when a light malfunctions.

For a roundabout, all you need is someone who can draw a circle, perform some engineering, a bit of land, and bam!

Traffic experts praise roundabouts for safety.

A 2020 report from the Georgia Department of Transportation reported that where roundabouts have replaced traditional intersections, accidents of all types declined 35 percent, while accidents resulting in injuries fell 60 percent.

Outside the safety and cost benefits, roundabouts also provide a donut hole, a sort of island refuge filled with pretty flowers, trees or other interesting things you can enjoy as you drive by.

Down in Sandersville, Ga., you can actually see a freight train running through the middle of the roundabout, and you can orbit a bronzed horse on the Mayfield Road roundabout in Milton.

A groggy introduction

My first encounter with roundabouts came some 30 years ago. Following an overnight flight overseas, in which I enjoyed no sleep, I rented a car at the Shannon, Ireland, airport. The car had a steering wheel on the right and a four-on-the-floor gear shift on the left.

I am right-handed.

After a quick run-through in the parking lot, I pulled out onto the freeway and settled in. Then, in less than a few miles, there it was – like that monster wave in “The Perfect Storm” – a two-lane roundabout. I had no idea what it was. Nothing I could do but dive headfirst into it.

I went around and around and around before figuring out how to extricate myself. I pulled into a gas station to collect my wits and surveil the anomaly.

After a while, I figured it out and continued my journey.

The first roundabout in North Fulton County opened in Roswell in 2012, and it created a furor. I was there at the ribbon cutting, and it’s an interesting story.

Roswell Transportation Director Steve Acenbrak introduced the project as a way of relieving the ghastly rush-hour gridlock at Grimes Bridge Road and Norcross Street, which up till then had been a four-way stop.

Acenbrak told me later he faced a storm of criticism from residents opposed to the contraption, and I have no doubt there were some on the City Council who felt the same. A petition with 100 names was presented to the City Council opposing the project.

It's important to note, though, how the city went about completing the project.

Listening to residents

One of the most strident opponents was 104-year-old Mattie Smith, who had lived on the southwest corner of the intersection for 30 years. Smith's son, Gary, who lived in Cumming, took up his mother's fight, arguing the project would lower nearby property values and lower his mother's quality of life.

After weeks of negotiations, the city decided to buy the home for $180,000 and let the elderly Smith rent for as long as she liked. It also offered to extend a berm along the corner and install a privacy fence.

Throughout the negotiations, Acenbrak told me he and the city were committed to avoiding imposing eminent domain to obtain use of the Smith property through litigation.

Two weeks into construction, Mattie Smith died.

Another resident with property at stake was Barney Burroughs, who told me at the time that he worried construction would damage several historic willow oaks on his lot and impede access to his driveway.

The matter was settled when the city agreed to pay $55,000 to move his driveway and modify the house to reorient the garage. It also hired an arborist to prepare the trees for the construction.

Not long after traffic began flowing through the roundabout, public sentiment changed, and Acenbrak became known on the street as “The Roundabout Man.”

"I've never gotten a thank-you note before," he told me at the time. "People stop me in the grocery store and tell me how much they like it."

Maybe that’s because of how Roswell treated the people affected by the project.

The city originally budgeted $1.4 million for the roundabout, but it came in at about $771,000, counting a $200,000 water line relocation paid for through grant money.

Paying a little extra to treat people right can still be a bargain.