November 28, 2012LITTLETON — The state Department of Transportation heard input last week regarding plans to improve Exit 42. The busy spot serves as the Meadow Street entry or exit to I-93.
This plan was discussed during parts of three public meetings recently. On Monday, the Board of Selectmen expressed interest in additional traffic data. Thus, the town has yet to officially take a position on the DOT proposal.
As part of the state driveway permit process seven years ago, Lowe's agreed to make improvements around Exit 42. One of the main changes would have been a second lane westbound lane on Meadow Street from I-93 down toward Wal-Mart.
The need for the additional lane was based on projected traffic to the Lowe's store. Because of the weak economy since the original study, actual traffic has never reached the projected levels. As presented to the Selectmen Monday, there are about 1,200 fewer vehicles per hour on Meadow Street now than during the 2006 traffic study period.
The DOT now agrees with Lowe's that the second lane is not needed. Instead, the state suggests several other improvements that would increase safety at Exit 42 and Meadow Street.
One point that DOT made at the meeting was that the current southbound exit is not safe. Traffic entering westbound Meadow Street only has a yield sign with a limited merge area off the ramp.
The DOT suggests that this situation be eliminated. Making the southbound exit ramp like the current northbound ramp would do this. There would be two lanes connected to each other for either a left or right turn onto Meadow Street, per the DOT plan.
Another concern is the arrangement of the McDonalds parking lot and the southbound I-93 entry ramp. DOT believes that the current McDonalds entry on Meadow Street should be eliminated. Access to the restaurant should be from Old County Road instead, the state believes.
DOT would also lengthen the raised curb between the I-93 entry ramp and Meadow Street. This would prohibit cars from driving across Meadow Street directly from the north side of the road to the I-93 entry ramp.
Several individuals spoke at the DOT hearing. Although there was a general consensus that safety problems exist in the area, concern was expressed that Lowe's was no longer being held to their promise. "A building permit was given to them under the conditions," Bruce Hadlock said. He said that Lowe's should be held to the requirements in the building permit.
Hadlock continued by chiding Lowe's. "These people are opting out," Hadlock said of Lowe's. "Shame on you for not doing what you were told," he said to a Lowe's representative at the meeting.
Bryan Hadlock suggested that a new traffic study, as the state suggests, is not a good idea. Because of the bad economy, he suggested, "To do a traffic study now is basically pointless."
Even though the Hadlocks expressed frustration at the meeting, they agree that safety issues exist at Exit 42. The Hadlock Insurance office is just west the southbound exit ramp. Bryan Hadlock noted that a few cars each year slip off the road, nearly ending up in the building's parking lot. This can occur when drivers travel too fast as they exit the interstate.
Mark Sanborn, federal liaison at the DOT, hoped that the town did not become critical of Lowe's. "We approached Lowe's," he said. "They're trying to work with us on a solution that works for everyone."
Funding availability is a challenge, Sanborn continued. He said that simply adding lanes, as Lowe's originally agreed to do, would not solve the safety issues that all agree currently exist. Sanborn said that the question is, "How can be leverage the existing dollars the best we can?"
Bruce Hadlock asked why the DOT did not ensure Lowe's lived up to terms of the original agreement. "Where have you been the last seven years . . . Are you going to be another seven years?" he wondered. Sanborn said that Hadlock's concern was "fair criticism."
Meadow Street traffic lights were another issue discussed at the hearing. Planning Board Vice Chairperson Linda MacNeil suggested that flashing red lights would improve traffic flow.
Carl Hilgenberg echoed MacNeil's view. He said that sensors to activate the lights are often not tripped because drivers do not go up far enough in the lane before stopping. To turn onto northbound I-93 can be very frustrating because of long waits. Jokingly, he said, "you'll die of old age before the light changes," in some cases.
The DOT can facilitate changes to traffic light patterns. A move to flashing lights during certain hours could help eliminate long wait times at red lights.
DOT said that the cost to reconfigure the new McDonalds entrance would be about $50,000. This would be a town, rather than state, responsibility. Casey Hadlock noted the irony, since the DOT dictated the current arrangement that it now deems inadequate. "I don't feel it should come back on the taxpayer to reconfigure what was dictated in Concord," he said.
At the Selectmen's meeting on Monday, Eddy Moore suggested that McDonalds, rather than the town, should be required to fund changes to the restaurant's access. He based this conclusion on language in the building permit that McDonalds was issued in 2010.
DOT requested some additional town input on the proposal. Brian Schutt of DOT District 1 attended later planning board and selectmen meetings to facilitate the comment process. At the planning board meeting, MacNeil said that getting the safety issues addressed was the most important path for the town.
Interest in additional Meadow Street lanes is still important to many in town, however. At the DOT hearing, Moore said future traffic has to be considered. "When the economy comes back," he said, "it could be even worse." At the planning board meeting, Board of Selectmen Chairperson Marghie Seymour echoed that view. "I think we should assume we're going to have traffic again," she said.
Executive Councilor Ray Burton, who attended last week's DOT hearing, was hopeful of progress. If the work moves forward as DOT proposes, the project may be finished around Labor Day next year. He said when the work is done, "I'll want to cut a ribbon and have a celebration."