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Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is city editor of the Napa Valley Register.

Remember when the city made downtown’s one-way streets two-way and some people freaked?

Did I freak? Not in advance. But afterward, when cars were zipping BOTH ways but my brain forgot, yes, there were several heart-stopping moments.

Now something much bigger, much scarier is happening. The city is building three roundabouts where First Street, Second Street and California Boulevard converge at Highway 29.

Can you even wrap your brain around this?

Some of you may love roundabouts. You enjoyed them in Scotland, France or somewhere not-Napa. Once gotten used to, they’re lovely, you say.

But where on God’s green earth have you encountered three roundabouts in quick succession — blam, blam, blam — while driving groggily on your way to work, say, before your coffee has had a chance to kick in?

The very notion baffles me. I imagine three Tilt-A-Whirl carnival rides, one after another after another, with those who make safe passage emerging dizzy.

To tamp down wild imagining such as this, the city’s website touts an article, “Modern Roundabouts—A Safer Choice,” by the Federal Highway Administration. Not only are roundabouts typically safer and more efficient, than conventional intersection designs, they can come many shapes, including oval, teardrop, peanut and dogbone, the feds say.

I conceptually accept teardrop, dogbone and the like, but THREE of them in tight sequence? Doesn’t this take roundabouts to an entirely new level?

Federal Highway Administration, I’ll wait for my answer.

We won’t get to test out all three roundabouts until mid-2020 at the earliest, but the city has a video simulation showing how they should work. Go to cityofnapa.org and search for “Route-29California.”

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For 90 mesmerizing seconds, you can watch cars curling through the roundabouts and pealing off to wherever. The flow is serene, almost calming. Because the video is silent, there is no honking or screeching of brakes.

Note, too, that the one-way directions of First and Second are reversed in the video. That’s not a mistake. This switcheroo is part of the roundabout project.

Why are we getting three roundabouts all bunched up? Because they’re cheaper than straightening and widening the First Street overpass to handle growing traffic loads at the western entrance to downtown, that’s why.

“I think for many people it started out as a crazy idea,” Mayor Jill Techel said at the project’s June groundbreaking. “I think we’re now looking at it as a cool project.”

Not me. I’m still considering “crazy.”

A majority of Americans view roundabouts skeptically when first proposed. Older drivers such as myself are more skeptical than most. But the experts say not to worry. Once we get some spins under our belt, we’ll become converts.

For now, we’re all living with some serious construction. Workers are ripping the old intersections apart at a furious rate. We have narrowed lanes, reduced lanes and shifted lanes, all bordered by intimidatingly close ribbons of concrete K-rail and roaring heavy equipment.

Because I go to work early, I sail through on my a.m. commute. In the evening, I’m delayed an extra light cycle or two. Not ideal, but not too bad. On weekends, when I’m northbound on 29, I’m avoiding the First Street exit. During this early construction phase, turns onto westbound First have become problematic. I get off at Imola and loop around Westwood.

Since the era of the Triple Roundabouts will be here before we know it, I advise everyone to rest up and read up. Do you know roundabout etiquette? Who yields to whom? What’s a safe roundabout speed? By watching the simulation video and having actual circling experiences, we’ll probably all get the hang out it. I mean, are the Europeans smarter than us?

But what about the tourists — those millions of visitors for whom the Triple Roundabout will be the first of their motorist lives?

This could get interesting.

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Kevin can be reached at 707-256-2217 or Napa Valley Register, 1615 Soscol Ave., Napa, 94559, or kcourtney@napanews.com.

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City Editor

Kevin has been city editor since September 2010. He joined the Register in 1973 as a reporter. He covered Napa City Hall and assorted other beats over the years. Kevin has been writing his Napa Journal column on Sundays since 1989.