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More roundabouts coming to North Liberty

$4 million project begins in spring
The busy Front Street/Penn Street intersection will be transformed into a roundabout starting this spring. A second roundabout will be simultaneously constructed at the future Front Street/North Bend Drive intersection, to be completed in August. (photo by Cale Stelken)

NORTH LIBERTY– A new elementary school in North Liberty means ambitious roadway improvements starting this spring.

With the opening of Christine Grant Elementary School in August, two roundabouts are planned for simultaneous construction on North Front Street, just before classes begin. Anticipated to start as soon as weather cooperates, the estimated $4.1 million project also includes water main and sanitary sewer replacement, improved intersection lighting and sight distance improvements on West Penn Street.

Front Street/Penn Street roundabout

Residents and regulars of North Liberty have likely noticed changes at the intersection of Penn Street and Front Street, as two vacant rental units and a home were demolished in early October to clear the stage for a new roundabout. Utility relocations began this month.

While the project may prove a summer-long burden for commuters of North Liberty’s northeast gateway, City Administrator Ryan Heiar considers it a necessary step to match the area’s rapid growth and activity.

“It’s a very significant intersection in North Liberty, and I think folks see that in the morning. We have traffic backed up onto North Front Street quite a ways. In the evenings especially, it’s backed up on Penn Street, in some cases all the way back to (Highway) 965,” he remarked. “The reasoning is that intersection is a pinch point, and a roundabout should really alleviate that.”

In addition to incoming Solon residents, the Cedar Springs neighborhood, South Slope Cooperative, the Coralville Reservoir and nearby campgrounds make for a busy stretch of road.

“On a holiday weekend, or any weekend anymore, you have a lot of boats and campers running out that way, and it really can cause some congestion,” Heiar added. “With the new school coming onboard, it’s going to add to that.”

The new single-lane roundabout, Heiar says, will be slightly smaller than the roundabout on Dubuque Street by Liberty High School, but comparable in size to the Commerce Drive roundabout in northwest Coralville. It will be ornately similar to the new Kansas Avenue roundabout.

“We decided not to do a sign because that’s when costs really add up,” Heiar noted, adding enough property has been purchased around the intersection a monument may be incorporated later. The city council has recently been in discussion about designing entryways into the community.

Front Street/North Bend Drive roundabout

A short jog north of the Penn/Front Street intersection will be a second single-lane roundabout, located between South Slope Cooperative and the forthcoming Grant Elementary. The plan will also extend North Bend Drive, currently halting to a dead end, to intersect with Front Street. The city is working on a cost share agreement with the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD), which will see the school district help pay for the completion of North Bend Drive, having it stretch south of the new school and meet the city paving halfway.

Chief Executive Officer of South Slope Communications Chuck Deisbeck said the planning process has been positive.

“We’ve had a great working relationship with the City of North Liberty,” he remarked, noting discussions with Heiar dating back to 2017. “The roundabout should be a pleasant enhancement to the alternative issues that we might have had.”

Deisbeck said the roadway to the north hasn’t been the safest, with vehicles entering town at a high rate of speed.

“Having that slowdown and some of the safety factors they’re going to put in place with signage and reduced speed limits, I think it’s going to be a benefit to everybody.”

South Slope currently has about 85 staff members and plans to grow. The construction phase will likely necessitate some alternatives, like having some technical staff report to another location in North Liberty. Deisbeck also looks forward to the introduction of a prominent neighbor in Grant Elementary, having provided South Slope’s parking facilities for PR during the school’s groundbreaking ceremony.

“We’re going to help anyway we can and be a good neighbor,” he noted.

On nearly 22 acres, west of Front Street, the school will have a capacity for 600 students. Grant Elementary will include a preschool program, a state-of-the-art geothermal system, enhanced natural lighting and advanced energy-saving lighting techniques.

While the roundabout near Liberty High School was designed to accommodate potential two-lane expansion in the future, the two new single-lane roundabouts are projected to operate efficiently well into the future. Should this change, however, the city has enough right of way property for expansion.

According to Josiah Bilskemper, engineer for Shive-Hattery, intersection designs often rely on traffic projections many decades into the future, and roundabouts are no different. “The traffic impact studies completed for this corridor show forecasted traffic volumes that make a single-lane roundabout design the best choice on opening day and in the future,” he said.

Penn Street sight distance improvements

In addition to two roundabouts, sight distance improvements along Penn Street will help streamline traffic to the west of Front Street. This will include grading humped areas and removing landscaping for better visibility.

Grading will occur along the south side of Penn Street, from the southeast corner of the Stewart Street intersection to the southwest corner of the Dubuque Street intersection. The curb ramps will be replaced, and the entire sidewalk between will be replaced at a slightly lower elevation, allowing drivers turning onto Penn Street better visibility of approaching vehicles.

Currently, northbound drivers have to pull onto the crosswalk as they approach Penn Street from Dubuque Street. The curved sidewalk at the southwest corner of the intersection will be reconstructed and straightened as will the curb ramps, which will move the stop bar and crosswalk ahead.

The northern intersection of Penn and Dubuque Street, across from Pizza Plus, will also undergo improvements, including grading, pushing a retaining wall back and removing shrubs and trees from the northeast right of way. The curb ramps at all these locations will be replaced with ADA compliant grades and slopes.

Roundabouts detour phases

Two lanes of traffic will be maintained during construction of both roundabouts via temporary pavement. Part of the Iowa River Corridor Trail along Front Street will also be closed during construction; the existing trail between Centro and Grant Elementary will provide alternative access to the Cedar Springs neighborhood.

Slight variations may occur in addition to the following detour stages:

Stage 1:

Traffic will detour to Jefferson Street and West Penn Street, utilizing Hodge Street and Molly Drive. A segment of East Penn Street to Jules Court will be closed, as will the southern segment of Front Street between Penn and Dubuque Street. Work to connect North Bend Drive to Front Street will begin, and will include reconstruction of the South Slope entrance. Temporary pavement will be placed at the northwest corner of the intersection to maintain two lanes of traffic between Penn Street and Front Street.

Stage 2:

Traffic will detour onto North Bend Drive– now connected to Front Street– in addition to Jefferson Street. The west leg of the Penn and Front intersection will be closed for reconstruction.

Stage 3:

Traffic will continue to detour through Jefferson Street and North Bend Drive. The section of Front Street between North Bend Drive and Penn Street will be closed for the completion of both roundabouts.

Timeline

Construction plans were finalized between Shive-Hattery and the City of North Liberty in late December, and a public hearing on the project was scheduled for Jan. 22. Bids will be received Feb. 5 and the contract awarded Feb. 12. Given the sensitive timetable, the city will provide a “no excuse” early completion incentive to the awarded contractor for up to $60,000.

Weather permitting, construction begins in late March, with substantial completion Aug. 16, one week before Grant Elementary’s first classes begin. Landscaping and other miscellaneous finishing work adjacent to the roundabouts will continue into September and October.