April 04, 2017NEW DURHAM — How you get from one place to another is a topic that's at something of a crossroads here.
Recently, staffers from the Strafford Regional Planning Commission (SRPC) met with town officials to identify priority projects. The objective was to see how New Durham might fit within a larger 10-year transportation plan that could help leverage state and federal funding.
While safety concerns along the Route 11 corridor dominated the discussion at the March 30 meeting in the fire station community room, in-town matters such as a long-discussed sidewalk from the school to the ballfield were also talked about.
Attendees included planning board members, BOS liaison David Swenson, NDPD Chief Shawn Bernier and NDFD Chief Peter Varney. Rounding out the group were SRPC consultants Colin Lentz and James Burdin.
Lentz kicked off the session with some introductory remarks. He noted the opportunity to implement a plan that could bring outside funding to town.
"We're looking to you for feedback on which projects are deemed critical - the ones that are a priority, versus those that are important but not necessarily on the top of the list," Lentz said.
A handout described seven potential projects for long-range consideration in a 10-year plan. Many involved improving safety and traffic flows along Route 11.
Lentz agreed that the highway corridor is a priority from personal experience, noting that it can be a "nightmare on weekends."
Lentz cited congestion and the difficulty of crossing intersections during peak travel hours. He noted that the fact Farmington is examining its section of Route 11 makes any similar proposal more attractive since it would fit within a regional impact framework.
"Anything you can do to tie in to what's being talked about regionally is huge - it lets them know they'll get more bang for the buck," Lentz elaborated.
Lentz said that some towns within the SRPC footprint, such as Dover, Rochester and Somersworth are executing their own 10-year-plans - so SRPC is focusing on smaller, more rural communities like New Durham.
SRPC serves 18 municipalities, and outreach efforts like last week's meeting was one of perhaps 14 being conducted around the region.
"A key goal for anything we do is to bring a level of regional coordination while also maximizing local impacts," Lentz said.
While the focus of the publicly-open session focused on transportation, the conversation recognized that the way residents get from place to place has economic development implications.
"Anything that happens locally can have an impact on a larger scale," Lentz added.
Regional Economic Development Planner Burdin said that long-range planning decisions oughtn't be made in a vacuum - but should rather take a "larger, broader, system-wide" perspective.
Burdin said that state and federal dollars can spur local economic development. He added that the ways that funds are applied locally constitute key criteria that decision makers consider when making allocations.
Burdin described New Durham as a community where many residents engage in employment opportunities elsewhere in places such as Dover, Portsmouth, Concord and even Manchester and or Maine.
While not explicitly describing New Durham as a bedroom community, Burdin noted, "This is a part of the state where people live but need to go to where there are opportunities."
He added that investing in infrastructure that creates opportunities more locally could diminish some traffic if residents could work more locally.
In any appeal for outside funding, Burdin emphasized the importance of demonstrating "economic distress" in seeking resources for transportation projects that could link residents with economic opportunities in other communities.
"Residents in New Durham need to drive to achieve a living and maintain a certain quality if life," Burdin observed.
He said that the state's relatively low unemployment rate places SRPC municipalities at something of a disadvantage for some grants - but that the spectre of underemployment still makes New Durham competitive for state and federal Economic Development Administration (EDA) funding. He noted that documented lower-than-average house prices can also spur funding.
Burdin and Lentz agreed that the first step in moving forward is to get local priorities on a list of projects eligible for state and federal funding. In terms of the SRPC footprint, other grant seekers include Farmington, Lee, UNH, Milton and the COAST bus.
Burdin described the prioritized ranking as a mix of critical infrastructure projects and "wish list" items for official consideration.
"The first step is to get on the list prepared for consideration," Burdin said.
The group came to a consensus that Town Administrator Scott Kinmond should place considered projects on the agendas of the BOS and the planning board.
A long-discussed sidewalk from the school to the ballfields was discussed. Planning board member Dot Viesel said the lack of such a walkway jeopardizes the safety of kids who walk to school. She added that a sidewalk would help maximize recreational resources.
"Really the heart of this town are the school, the library, and the rec department - so a sidewalk would link all of these," Viesel said.
Emerging to the top of the conversation was how to address ongoing matters along the Route 11 corridor.
Chief Bernier said that adding a turning lane to the Route 11/Quaker Road intersection should be a priority to help northwest-bound traffic turn left there.
"That's a 55 zone and we see a lot of rear-end accidents there, so a turning lane would help mitigate this - we seem to have at least an accident there each week," Bernier said.
Viesel said the Tash Road intersection at Route 11 is also important. In addition to being a major junction on dump days, Viesel said that many commuters use the intersection to get to Route 28 - a vital route commuters use to get to jobs in Concord and Manchester. This is a four-way intersection.
The three-way intersection at Davis Crossing and Route 11 was also deemed a priority. This is a key intersection for residents who turn right to get home from the Seacoast to the densely-populated March Pond, Birch Hill, and Chamberlin Way areas.
As the conversation continued, it seemed Route 11, which connects the town with so many of the communities in the SRPC area, was a key concern.
Kinmond, who commutes along Route 11 to work from elsewhere in the Lakes Region, says he is sensitive to the "skewed alignment" of the highway. From a perfect engineering perspective, all intersections should form 90-degree angles. As the highway cuts through town, however, many junctions come together at angles that could be kindly described as disjointed.
"I think it comes down to being a public safety issue," Kinmond noted, citing his past credentials in emergency management.
"There's a few intersections that just aren't safe, and it would be good to get this at least on the record for the state even if we don't get funding to fix them right away," Kinmond added,
The TA's sentiment encapsulated a statement Lentz made earlier in the discussion when he said, "Crossing Route 11 at times feels like you're taking your life in your hands on a wish on a prayer."
Another key example of this is non-perpendicular alignment is what's known now as the "Johnson's intersection." This is where Route 11 joins with Depot and Berry Roads.
Heading from Alton to Rochester, drivers need to cut a wide left onto Depot en route to the general store and the town hall.
"It's not safe," Kinmond said.
Additionally, the width of the Depot Road access to Route 11 is especially wide. Although wide enough to accommodate two cars, it does not include a designated right turning lane. Alton-bound traffic turning right usually sidle up to left or straight-bound traffic, obscuring views and increasing traffic risks.
With Route 11 dominating the conversation, Kinmond urged the need to "communicate and coordinate" any key issues among stakeholders - particularly those with properties abutting the highway.
Kinmond said the town has a history of limiting residential access to the highway, and that any deliberations should be clearly communicated to abutters. Kinmond added that the appropriate channel would likely be through the state DOT and that SRPC facilitation would be appreciated.
While state and federal funding may be available for some of the ideas discussed, Kinmond urged the need for officials to keep the CIP committee engaged.
"These are local capital matters - but with state implications, so we need to be deliberate," Kinmond urged. He added that the access to federal infrastructure funds increases the need for the kind of diligence he expects.
"I think some key committees will have a full plate moving forward," Kinmond said.
Swenson agreed with Kinmond's general assessment. He also wondered out loud if there was an opportunity for the town "to be a little more creative" in how we define the term "corridor" - a word SRPC uses frequently in many of its proposals to state and federal grantors - often in terms of the aegis of "quality of life."
Specifically, Swenson wondered if "quality of life" and environmental topics might be appropriate for consideration for funding. He mentioned walking trails and the preservation of the Merrymeeting River waterway as examples of critical conservation and recreation areas.
"These are invaluable assets to the town of New Durham - they may be beyond the scope of what we are talking about now, but I believe they should be topics of discussion going forward," Swenson said.
He added, "Even if we do not put them on the list for consideration, I believe we should be mindful of how important they are as resources for this town."
Swenson contextualized that the Merrymeeting River connects Lake Winnipesaukee with Merrymeeting Lake. This past year, cyanobacteria blooms in a waterway between the lakes triggered a state advisory.
"Since it crosses municipal boundaries, this seems a matter of regional concern," he concluded.
The meeting was tightly organized and wrapped up in a little over an hour - but with many opportunities for local officials to get to work.
As a follow-up to last week's discussion, both the planning board and the BOS will provide SRPC with a prioritized list of projects for consideration. The BOS is meeting tonight, April 6, at 7 p.m.. Call 858-2091 to confirm the meeting location.