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DOT unveils Alton Traffic Circle plans

May 20, 2009
ALTON — Having taken the wishes of local residents and officials to heart, representatives from the state Department of Transportation (DOT) presented their revised plans for the Alton Traffic Circle to a capacity crowd at the Gilman Library last week.

During an informational meeting at Prospect Mountain High School last year, the DOT brought forward two options for using earmarked funds to improve the flow of traffic at the Circle.

Their preferred option, a European-style roundabout like those in Meredith and Nashua, was universally rejected by residents, who favored the second option (which the board of selectmen later directed the DOT to pursue): a proposal aimed at turning the Circle into a conventional rotary through proper signage and re-configured approaches from either side of Route 11.

Trent Zanes, a preliminary design supervisor for the DOT, explained that the proposed changes were aimed at improving safety, rather than capacity.

The primary goal of the current plan, he said, is to correct the inconsistent and counter-intuitive signing that forces traffic already inside the circle to yield to incoming vehicles.

The biggest change, Zanes explained, would be a re-configured approach from Route 11 on the Rochester/New Durham side of the circle, where the "straight shot" that currently allows vehicles to enter the circle at an accelerated rate of speed would be eliminated and the road shifted into an 'S' shape, the curves designed to force incoming vehicles to slow down.

New signs would also be placed at that entrance forcing incoming vehicles to yield to traffic inside the circle, Zanes said.

Vehicles entering the circle from the Village area, on the opposite side, would also be forced to yield, he explained, adding that a crosswalk and raised island would be installed at that entrance, providing a "safe refuge" for pedestrians, who he said would have to look in only one direction at a time while crossing.

The DOT, Zanes said, also plans to connect the sidewalk at the new Merrymeeting River Bridge to the sidewalk that currently ends at Riverside Cemetery, and will provide a new crosswalk at the entrance to Hannaford.

Explaining that the DOT had been asked to find a "better way" to get vehicles into Dunkin' Donuts and the Circle Grocery without causing back-ups, Zanes said the shoulders on either side of Route 11 in that area would be widened to 10 feet, providing enough room for drivers to pass vehicles turning left into either business on the eastbound side of Route 11.

Drivers turning into either business from the west-bound lane, he added, would be able to move over to the right, allowing vehicles behind them to continue on their way.

The proposed improvements would cost an estimated $800,000 to $1 million, which would be taken from the $2.4 million earmark, he said, adding that the state would try to maintain two-way traffic throughout the construction process, although occasional one-way traffic might become necessary.

Commending the DOT for listening to the townspeople, resident Reuben Wentworth asked whether the white lines on the new 10-foot shoulders would be placed at the edge of the breakdown lanes themselves, or at the edge of the pavement.

Project Manager Don Lyford replied that the line would appear at the edge of the lane.

Wentworth suggested that it be placed at the edge of the pavement instead, in order to prevent weekend visitors with boat trailers from being tempted to park in the breakdown lanes, thereby blocking them up and creating back-ups.

With some residents voicing concerns about the legality of passing left-turning vehicles on the right, police Capt. Ryan Heath explained that while it is not against state law to pass on the right, it is illegal to make "any unsafe pass."

If a driver leaves the road at any point while passing on the right, or attempts to pass near a crosswalk, he said, police are within their rights to pull that individual over and issue a citation.

"You have to make that determination as a driver, whether it's safe to do it or not," he added.

Commenting on the new 'S' shaped approach from Route 11 West, sate Rep. Jim "Doc" Pilliod (R–Belmont) said the new configuration seemed to him to be "at least as dangerous as a little extra speed there."

Lyford replied that if the straight shot were left in place, incoming vehicles might not realize they needed to yield.

"Well, that's an assumption," Pilliod said. "Have there been many accidents at that point?"

Lyford said there have been several accidents in the past where people inside the circle did not realize they were required to yield, and were hit by incoming vehicles from Route 11.

"One of the reasons for re-designing that kind of a road is to correct what's caused accidents, and I don't know that that's happened," a skeptical Pilliod replied.

"You can't just re-sign it because that's too straight of a road," Lyford said in response.

Suggesting that the existing accident data for the circle might be misleading, Heath explained that an accident is not deemed reportable by state standards unless it has caused a minimum of $1,000 in damage.

More than 90 percent of the accidents at the circle during his tenure with the force, he said, have taken place at the yield signs within the circle, and have stemmed from people familiar with the way the circle functions yielding at the proper time, while the people behind them (who weren't familiar with the layout of the circle) rear-ended them, not expecting to encounter a yield sign.

What you end up with in that instance, he said, is a minor fender-bender at a slow rate of speed that isn't reportable.

Stating that he could recall only one fatal accident at the circle during his 24 years on the department, Fire Chief Scott Williams said there are "so many close calls that go unreported, it's unbelievable."

A tanker truck rollover that happened several years ago, in which speed was a major factor, might not have happened under the new configuration proposed by the DOT, he added.

Resident Deanna O'Shaughnessy voiced concern about the possibility of the re-configured approach to the circle from Main Street causing back-ups, stating that she did not want to see resident Christine Sanborn (whose property is located just before the circle on the west-bound side of Route 11) "looking out over a sea of car tops for the duration of the summer."

With several businesses and the Post Office located close to the circle, making it difficult at times to get around the Village even now, she said, "is there any way you can address this" and allow vehicles traveling west on Route 11 to enter into the circle without yielding?

Noting that the reason there are no yield signs at the Main Street entrance to the circle now is because preference was given to inbound traffic on Route 11, Zanes replied that the only way to increase capacity without compromising safety would be to add lanes.

Pointing out that the circle is nearly two lanes wide now, Williams asked why the DOT had not considered creating two lanes within the existing circle, enabling vehicles wishing to exit at any point to move to the outside lane.

"You didn't provide for any of that," he said. "We didn't like the roundabout, but you can achieve the roundabout by just doubling up a little bit on the lane width there."

Zanes replied that if the DOT had provided two lanes all the way around the interior of the circle, it would have created confusion on the part of drivers uncertain when to move to the outside lane.

"Well, what made the roundabout so good, because you're doing the same thing," Williams commented.

Lyford explained that the tighter the circle is, the shorter the distance people have to travel within it, and the slower their speed tends to be.

Selectman Dave Hussey suggested that a separate turning lane be constructed off Route 28 that would "dump" traffic heading toward Rochester out further down Route 11, thereby eliminating it from the equation altogether.

"To me, that's a very easy fix," he said.

Zanes said that option could be considered, but warned that given the tendency of traffic to back up for long distances on Route 28 during the summer, the DOT might not be able to create a lane long enough to make the idea feasible.

In an effort to address the concerns aired by residents, Highway Agent Ken Roberts cautioned them against getting into "a mindset" with regard to the circle.

"We're from here … we know how the Traffic Circle works," he said. "But if you're not from here … you can sit out there and see people blow the yield signs all the time."

Illustrating his point with the story of a woman who followed him from the circle to Chichester one evening, flashing her lights and shaking her fist at him in the mistaken belief that he had cut her off, Roberts said that after handing her his business card and telling her to go back and take a look at where she was when the incident at the circle happened, he received a letter of apology from the woman, who said that although she had passed through the circle on her way back and forth to Concord for the past three years, she had never noticed the yield signs within it.

"That's where all the close calls come from," he said.

Re-iterating her concern about back-ups on Main Street, O'Shaughnessy said she did not want to see the community's efforts to make the downtown area a "walking Village" wasted.

"Having … the rest of our lives, having Main Street a block of steel and tire, and the same back out on the bridge … I just don't think we'd like living with that," she said. "Is there some other way?"

Explaining that maintaining the flow of traffic within the circle was the key, Roberts said that, "If you don't keep the flow in the Traffic Circle, everything will back up everywhere."

Thanking the DOT representatives for their time and consideration of the townspeople's concerns, Wentworth remarked, to a burst of applause from the audience, that "this is the first time in a long time I've seen the government actually listen to its citizens."

Editor's note: The DOT's presentation can be seen in its entirety on LRPA-TV's Channel 26. Check Channel 24 at the top of each hour for program listings.

A copy of the presentation is also available on VHS by request at the Gilman Library.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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