EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Traffic accidents at the Airport Circle have increased by about 44 percent in the year since the debut of a controversial new configuration that was intended to make the intersection safer.
Police statistics obtained through the Open Public Records Act show the new circle has been the site of 39 accidents this year, up from 27 in 2011 — when construction was under way — and from 26 five years ago in 2007.
Traffic at the circle can still be chaotic at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., with commuters racing through newly installed red lights and cutting across to reach turn lanes. And the public furor has persisted despite the installation of additional signage and stepped-up enforcement earlier this year.
“Whoever designed this must be in the witness protection program,” quipped Jim Laymon, a 51-year-old computer scientist.
Like many of his colleagues, Laymon leaves his job at the William J. Hughes Technical Center an hour late each day, taking an access road that effectively bypasses the circle.
Atlantic County first announced a plan in 1996 to alleviate traffic congestion and reduce accidents at the intersection of Delilah Road, Tilton Road and Amelia Earhart Boulevard. But 15 years and more than $5 million later — in November 2011 — the long-gestating redesign opened to harsh criticism from motorists, particularly employees of the Federal Aviation Administration who back up around the intersection at rush hour.
County Executive Dennis Levinson is conflicted about the redesign, saying the intersection is deeply flawed but also better than the old circle.
“It’s like the Chicago White Sox,” he said. “On paper, it looked like a winner; the only problem is when you get on the field.”
The new circle, as designed by the Fairfax, Va.-based engineering firm Dewberry, allows motorists on the most traveled thoroughfare, Delilah Road, to cut through the middle. Meanwhile, those on the other roads merge onto the bisected circle via a series of stop signs and traffic signals.
At the time of the announcement in 1996, other circles in the Cardiff section of the township and in Somers Point were being converted to more traditional intersections. But that trend actually ran counter to the rest of the nation.
Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety — a nonprofit funded by insurance companies to study accident-reduction measures — said about 1,500 new circles have been built in the United States since the early ’90s. The kind of hybrid circle designed by Dewberry is rare and may undercut some of the benefits of the roundabout, he said.
According to a 2001 IIHS study of 23 intersections, conversion to circles reduced crashes by 40 percent, and injury-causing crashes by 80 percent. A 2009 study of higher-speed rural intersections, such as the Airport Circle, found the average injury-crashes rate per million vehicles was reduced by 84 percent through circles.
Circles eliminate right angle, or T-bone, crashes — which tend to be the most severe — because all of the traffic is traveling in the same direction with no stop lights or sharp turns, Rader said.
“The vehicle-to-vehicle conflicts are reduced, and crashes that do occur are less severe because vehicles are traveling at low speeds,” he said. “One thing about roundabouts, it forces drivers to pay attention to what’s going on.”
County officials, however, say the redesign has made a dangerous intersection safer.
“It’s just that drivers are not paying attention,” said County Engineer Joe D’Abundo. “They’re side-swiping each other or running into the back end of the vehicle.”
D’Abundo said the county’s statistics show just a few accidents each month — 14 between July and October — and that the crashes are less severe. The statistics obtained by The Press of Atlantic City don’t address severity but show that 2012 has seen nine crashes involving injuries as of Nov. 15. That’s an increase from two last year and five in 2010.
Planning Director Joe Maher said there are discrepancies in the data and that some factors — such as motorists who refuse treatment but still want injuries recorded for legal purposes — aren’t easy to quantify. Despite the confusion some motorists have experienced with the new intersection, he said, it’s been largely successful.
“This (project) was driven by reports back 15 years ago that this intersection had the highest accident rate of all four southern counties,” he said. “We had to do something with it.”
Pete Castellano, an attorney for the FAA, was involved in one of the accidents after the new circle opened. His vehicle was rear-ended in front of Christi’s Bar and Restaurant on his morning commute in March.
“I never saw it or heard it coming,” said Castellano, who suffered back and neck pain at the time, but no permanent injury. “I’m fortunate nothing worse happened in terms of injury, but it wasn’t pleasant.”
Having made the same commute for 20 years, he said, the new intersection seems more dangerous than the old one.
“The lane markings are very confusing, and ... the traffic lights bottle up people both in the circle and trying to enter the circle,” he said. “My instinct tells me the person behind me was so focused on beating the traffic light, they weren’t conscious of the fact that there was traffic in front of them.”
Levinson said the biggest problem is from motorists who try to sneak into intersections against red lights. Their impatience causes other lanes of traffic to wait even longer to pass.
But he added that much of the congestion will disappear once the South Jersey Transportation Authority completes a proposed direct connector between the Atlantic City Expressway and the airport. The connector would replace Amelia Earhart Boulevard, the circle’s fifth leg, and alleviate much of the traffic that backs up around the circle at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.
“I realize that time is money and everyone’s in a hurry, but this is one of the facts of life they’re going to have to live with until the connector road is put in there,” he said.
The new circle was designed with the idea that the boulevard connecting Atlantic City International Airport and the FAA center to the Airport Circle wouldn’t be there, Levinson said. As it is, there’s now just one entrance and exit to and from the airport.
“It would’ve been nice if everything was done together, but I guess it wasn’t and the reason was funding and logistics,” he added.
The airport connector is still years away.
SJTA officials had previously said construction — which was estimated to take between 18 and 24 months — could begin next year, but spokesman Kevin Rehmann said there’s no timetable. The project is in the design and permitting phase, he said.
“We recognize, and the county recognizes, that something should be done, but it’s not a cheap project,” he said. “It’s in the capital improvement plan, but it’s not been scheduled yet.”
Rehmann said the connector project has an estimated cost of $40 million to $50 million.
Levinson said he defers to the opinions of engineers that tell him the circle is working, but he still doesn’t like it.
“What I don’t like about the circle is the fact the people don’t like it,” he said. “That’s a problem for me because I represent the people.”
Laymon, like many commuters, tries to avoid the intersection altogether. Each day, he waits until 5 p.m. and takes an access road through the NextGen site to a red light east of the circle on Delilah Road. From there, it’s a straighter shot through the middle of the circle to his home in Egg Harbor Township.
“It’s still a nightmare going through there,” he said. “I really wish someone would just fix it.”
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