We have a winner in the contest to guess the number of construction barrels along Colonial Avenue near Virginia Western Community College.
Before we fete that lucky estimator and some of the unlucky ones, too, let’s run down some facts about the triple traffic circle project.
Those were unavailable Oct. 29, when I asked readers to guess how many barrels were there on July 9. The city’s chief engineer, Luke Pugh, is now back from vacation. On Tuesday, he filled me in on that project.
- The general contractor, DLB Construction of Hillsville, turned its first spade of dirt on Colonial Avenue in early May 2018. Much of the early work was installing utility cables underground. The barrels sprouted later that summer.
- The original concept called for two circles — one at the Colonial Avenue-Overland Road intersection and another at Virginia Western’s main entrance. As planning proceeded (but before construction began), the city added a third circle at Winding Way and Colonial.
- In all, the project cost taxpayers $6.3 million, Pugh said. It has eliminated two traffic lights (one at Overland and another at the Virginia Western entrance) as well as a stop sign at Winding Way.
- When will it be done? Pugh reckoned sometime near Thanksgiving, if good weather prevails. Otherwise, it’ll take a little longer. Either way, it sounds like the work will be finished before Christmas.
I’m a roundabout fan, but I’ve heard from many circle haters, too.
“Our goal is to effectively move cars through there, while [also] embracing pedestrian and bicycle movement,” Pugh told me. “It’s just like a lot of projects. Some people are going to like it and some people are not.” He added: “We’re getting a lot of positive comments.”
Pugh couldn’t answer one question: How many construction barrels were used? He laughed when I asked.
“I do not know,” Pugh said. “I’d have to go out and count them.”
That’s what I did July 9 for the purpose of this contest. Before we identify the winner, let’s first take stock of the dozens of other readers who also played. Thanks go to each.
In all, I received 69 guesses. They came from as far south as Kyle Noble (841) in Independence (near the North Carolina border) to as far north as Canadarago Lake, New York (which is near Cooperstown). That guess (315) came from Steve Talevi, assistant city attorney in Roanoke for three decades until his retirement last year.
Numerically, the guesses ranged from 75 orange-and-white barrels, which was way too low, to 2,578, which was way too high.
Of the guessers, 39 were women and 30 were men. The median guess (which is different from the average) was 323 — 34 readers guessed fewer barrels and 34 guessed more. Lesa Gordon guessed the median. But like Talevi’s, her estimate was too low.
The average of all the guesses was 418.3, and that’s significant for reasons we’ll get into at the end of this column.
Three readers guessed fewer than 100 barrels. Amanda Robinson of Clearbrook guessed the fewest, 75.
Twelve contestants guessed numbers in the 100 to 200 range; 15 guesses fell between 200 and 300; another 15 were between 300 and 400; and from there the frequency rapidly dropped off.
Seven readers guessed numbers from 400 to 500 — and one of them won lunch with yours truly. Four people estimated from 500 to 600; three guesses fell in the 600 to 700 range; two guessed 700 to 800; and four guessed 800 to 900.
Believe it or not, four readers put their estimates at more than 1,000. Retired Virginia Tech professor Virgil Cook of Blacksburg guessed 1,492. Donna Haley of Botetourt County guessed the most, 2,578.
“My son goes to [Virginia Western] and I go by there several times a month,” she told me.
Denise Schad of Botetourt (212) ventured the very first guess. It came in at 5:54 a.m. Oct. 29. Joey Hambrick guessed the same number.
Buz Booker of Pulaski was the only person who used a fraction in his estimate.
“My guess, 237-½ . . . accounts for the 6-½ that were squashed by the less careful, younger versions of Herb Detweiler!” Booker wrote. (Detweiler, 90, is the Roanoker who suggested the contest.)
Burch Sweeney, who lives near Virginia Western, gets props for the funniest comment that accompanied a guess (228). Sweeney said he calls the orange-and-white traffic guides “Bobby’s Barrels” in honor of his Jefferson Hills neighbor, Virginia Western President Robert Sandel.
“We have had to endure the DLB ‘[Bataan] Death March’ every weekday for over a year,” Sweeney noted. “If I win, you better take me to a joint that serves beer.” Alas, he wasn’t close.
So how many barrels did I count July 9? It took me two hours that day, repeatedly driving the half-mile stretch, parking to take notes and checking and re-checking my figures. I came up with 407. A handful of readers got pretty close.
The first runner-up is William Hopkins of Bedford County, who’s never driven by the site. He guessed 421, off by only 14. Virginia Hutson of Roanoke is second runner-up — she guessed 388, only 19 off. Two readers share bragging rights as third runner-up. Matthew Gallimore and Pat Lucas each guessed 435.
“I’ve driven by those cones probably a thousand times,” Lucas said. She lives in Roanoke.
“I’m one of your (probably few haha) conservative fans; not that I agree with you a lot but I do like reading your column,” Gallimore wrote. He’s 25 and lives in Cave Spring.
Now, let’s imagine a drum roll for the winner — Mike Weber of Blacksburg.
The 54-year-old real estate agent reckons he’s driven through the triple-roundabout project only twice. But he honed his random-object guessing skills years ago as the youngest of six children crammed into a station wagon for long drives on family vacations.
Cars didn’t have TVs back then, Weber noted. So he and his siblings invented games to play. Stuff like, “How many cornstalks are in that field? How many cones are we passing in this construction project?” Weber said.
For 24 years, Weber operated Sycamore Deli in Blacksburg, a popular restaurant he described as “a dump trying to be a dive.” He started full time in real estate two years ago and closed the restaurant in June.
How did he come up with 403?
“I don’t know, Dan, that’s no lie,” Weber said. “Four-hundred-three just hit me.”
Hey, that’s good enough for a lunch. For the location, Weber chose Mac and Bob’s Restaurant in Salem. We’re meeting there next week.
I’ll wrap this up with a postscript about the average of all the guesses, 418.3. Aside from Weber’s, that’s closer than any other reader guessed. And there’s actually a name for this phenomenon — the wisdom of crowds.
Writer James Surowiecki wrote a book by that title in 2004. Its theory is that collective intelligence from a diverse group often results in better predictions than individual intelligence, even when the individuals are experts.
We seem to have hit on a good example with this barrels contest. Isn’t that neat?