SALEM — Don't be alarmed when a traffic circle suddenly appears Monday morning in downtown Salem.
Sunday evening, public works crews will begin converting the busy intersection of Chestnut, Norman and Summer streets into a temporary, small-scale roundabout. The circle, projected to last two months, is costing the city about $25,000.
"We've got some barrels out there right now to let people know that, very soon, they're going to have something different," said Public Works Director Dave Knowlton.
The intersection is on the edge of Holyoke Square and carries Route 114 traffic into Peabody, Danvers and Middleton. It's a block before the congested intersection of Essex and Summer streets, which itself is due for future upgrades.
"It's a pretty busy intersection coming from all directions — one of which is a one-way street," said City Councilor Christine Madore of the Chestnut/Norman/Summer interchange. Madore represents the neighborhood.
Knowlton said line striping will start at about 8 p.m. Sunday, after which "some temporary curbing" will be installed.
Then, "we're going to put up some signage to let people know they have to go around," Knowlton said. "Then we'll have striping, the crosswalks are going to change, and we need some temporary handicap ramps to be installed so everything is ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant."
A similar roundabout is already being built at the intersection of First Street and Swampscott Road, which will become a permanent traffic circle this summer.
A test toward a fix
Residents at first didn't quite embrace the idea of a roundabout at Chestnut, Norman and Summer streets.
"When we proposed this, not just neighbors in that area but also residents in general who use that route to go to and from Marblehead, they definitely paused on the idea — because, on the surface, it feels really drastic," Madore said.
But the traffic jams are hard to ignore, especially since the Essex Street intersection one block to the north often gets so clogged that traffic backs up beyond Chestnut Street.
"When I started my current term, this was one of the ideas put before me," Madore, a freshman councilor, said. "I just kept talking about this, so much that the current traffic and parking director, David Kucharsky, was able to move this forward."
Couching the roundabout as a trial effort, Madore said, meant residents were more likely to sign on.
"Everyone is at a point where they're willing to try a new solution," Madore said. "So since this is pitched as a pilot, there's definitely more appetite to see if it works. And if it doesn't? We'll stop it."
By the time rush hour begins Monday morning, the work will be done and signs will be up indicating the traffic circle. For the first few days, police details will also be on-hand to ensure the new rules are followed, according to Knowlton.
During the two-month pilot, officials will run traffic counts and watch how cars flow through the roundabout, he said.
"Obviously, if it doesn't work, we'll just pull everything out," Knowlton said. "If it does work, there's a downtown-striping project that's coming. That is going to put bike lanes throughout the downtown area."
If the test is a success, the traffic circle will be permanently lined.
Bigger issue down the road
After that, the Essex and Summer streets intersection is Public Works' next target.
"Congestion is a whole other problem in that area and a problem downtown, and the roundabout isn't going to solve that," Knowlton said. "We're hoping to reconstruct Essex Street from Summer and North to Washington Street soon."
The Essex Street project is its own beast — it will take two years to overhaul just a single stretch of the narrow downtown street. One year the road will be replaced, the next year the sidewalks and crosswalks will be rebuilt. Then, officials will look at the intersection.
The roundabout on Swampscott Road, meanwhile, is about a month into construction.
"We have some paving work we're going to be doing Monday to set up the new area where the roundabout is going to be," Knowlton said. "That whole project is scheduled to be done by the end of July."
A rotary, Public Works Director Dave Knowlton said, "is a much bigger traffic circle." For example, there are two rotaries in Gloucester along Route 128. In both cases, traffic moves faster than what a driver would see in a roundabout, and there are also two concurrent lanes of travel around the entire rotary.
In the case of the circles going into Salem, they're roundabouts — smaller features with only one lane going around, and with slower traffic speeds moving through. These would be similar to the three roundabouts installed in Beverly in recent years: At Brimbal Avenue, Sohier Road and Essex Street.
"Roundabouts are designed to keep people moving and requires people to slow down," Knowlton said of the temporary circle being built, "so we're hoping we get slow-steady, controlled traffic."