The state Department of Transportation has withdrawn its proposal to make Ojai the test site for the state's first roundabout, a British version of the traffic circle that Caltrans hopes will someday be used to improve safety and reduce congestion at thousands of intersections throughout California.
In a letter sent this week to the Ojai City Council, state highway officials said local opposition to the project, and plans by the council to put the matter on the November ballot, had created unacceptable delays.
Although Caltrans was not required to obtain permission from Ojai officials to remodel the intersection of California 33 and California 150, the agency had said it would not proceed without their support.
"There was more local resistance than we anticipated," said Al Maas, Caltrans senior traffic engineer.
Critics of the proposal, who charged that the circular intersection would force drivers into making dangerous and unpredictable maneuvers, had collected more than 2,500 signatures from Ojai Valley residents in opposition to the plan.
Craig Walker, leader of Citizens for Safe Driving in Ojai, said he might still continue his efforts to press for a measure on the November ballot so that opponents could send an unequivocal message to state officials.
"Caltrans has pulled out, but who knows what they might do two years from now," Walker said. "They might be back."
Caltrans officials, however, said they have already begun a search for a new site for the roundabout. Despite its futile 20-month effort to convince Ojai of the project's merits, the agency says it is more committed than ever.
"We may have lost this battle, but I think we've won the war," said Leif Ourston, Caltrans' consultant on the project and a former transportation engineer for the city of Santa Barbara.
Unlike the old traffic circles of the eastern United States that tend to collapse into gridlock at peak hours, the British-style roundabout avoids such pitfalls by assigning right-of-way to cars already traveling within the intersection, Ourston said.
The plan, for which Caltrans had budgeted $250,000, would increase traffic flow, reduce congestion and lessen the pollution created by stop-and-go driving, he said.
More important, by eliminating the head-on traffic of a conventional intersection, roundabouts used in Europe and Australia have typically reduced all accidents by about 40% to 60%, and fatal or serious-injury accidents by 80% to 90%, Ourston said.
"It's a loss for Ojai," he said. "Fear prevailed over reason."
But critics said their fears, which also include concern about pedestrian and bicycle safety in the intersection, were very reasonable.
"It's not like the people of Ojai are against progress or fearful of change," said Walker, a Nordhoff High School computer and psychology teacher. "We just don't feel that it's a good idea for this location. We don't need to take the risks."