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Safety project engineers present Route 28 findings

August 04, 2009
PITTSFIELD — Members of the Route 28 Project Advisory Committee (PAC), formed earlier this year to spearhead a safety audit of several intersections along the long-neglected state highway, gathered at Pittsfield's Town Hall on July 30 to view the results of a safety analysis recently completed by the engineering firm of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin (VHB).

Originally formed in February as part of a grant-funded joint venture between the Lakes Region and Central New Hampshire Regional Planning Commissions (LRPC and CNHRPC, respectively), the PAC (comprised of public officials and volunteers from the towns of Alton, Barnstead, Pittsfield, Chichester and Epsom) was tasked with developing a strategic plan for improving safety along the Route 28 corridor.

The planning commissions hope that having all five communities work together to create a plan will go a long way toward securing state and federal funding for future improvements.

Craig Tufts of the CNHRPC opened last week's meeting with a brief explanation of the land use recommendations proposed by the CNHRPC as a means of managing development and the resultant increase in traffic along the corridor.

With a considerable amount of space available along Route 28 for new development, he said, the manner in which the development takes place with have a profound impact on public safety, most notably with regard to the number of access points on the highway and where they are situated.

Since any development will have implications for drivers traveling along the corridor, Tufts explained, the chance to effectively manage future growth will provide all five communities with an opportunity to "plan for and shape what might come."

Identifying access management as the key issue in controlling new development, Tufts urged local planning boards to turn to the "Innovative Land Use Handbook" created by the CNHRPC and the state Department of Transportation (DOT) as a model for improving subdivision and site plan regulations pertaining to curb cuts and access points.

Tufts also suggested that local communities consider adopting new zoning ordinances regulating lighting, landscaping, and signage (in view of the fact that temporary signs, such as those for real estate, have become a sight line issue in recent years).

If communities along the corridor decide that they want to preserve the wooded areas and open fields currently visible at the sides of the highway, he said, "cluster" or "nodal" development (which enables land use boards to concentrate development within a certain area) might be an option worth considering, as opposed to traditional "strip" development, which allows for sprawl.

Another key aspect of managing growth along the corridor, Tufts said, will be the five towns working together to develop a cohesive vision of what they want Route 28 to look like in the coming years, rather than focusing on their own individual master plans.

Agreeing that there is often a "direct connection" between land use and transportation issues, VHB Highway Engineer Greg Bakos commented that the current slump in the housing market might present local planning boards with an opportunity to put new regulations in place "before the boom comes back."

Commenting that his organization has been "busier than ever" over the past few months, LRPC Principal Planner Mike Izard agreed that the recession would be an "opportune time" for local boards to take a proactive, rather than reactive, approach.

Encouraging committee members to contact him with their thoughts on the land use recommendations, Izard said the LRPC and CNHRPC were hoping to get a sense from them of whether or not their communities would be willing to go for the recommendations.

Robin Bousa, a Project Manager for VHB, noted that a corridor-wide vision could be used to entice business owners to move to the area, particularly in light of the fact that roughly 13,000 vehicles currently travel up and down the highway each day.

Safety analysis findings

Bakos began his re-cap of the findings of VHB's detailed safety analysis with a few corridor-wide observations, including pavement edge drop-offs (which he said could be solved, in most cases, by re-paving sections of the roadway with a sloping "safety edge"); objects blocking the "clear zones" at the edge of the highway; a lack of street name and 'Intersection Ahead' signs; inadequate street lighting; encroaching roadside vegetation; an absence of guardrail end treatments; and missing pavement markers, such as stop bars, on side streets.

Moving on to the 'Top 10' list of dangerous intersections, the committee established at its last meeting on June 25 (which VHB organized from south to north), Bakos started with the Epsom Traffic Circle, where he said the primary issue is the wide-open driveways for businesses on three sides of the rotary.

As a way of mitigating the problem, he said, VHB had proposed clearer delineations for the entrances and exits to each business aimed at controlling the flow of traffic.

Where Main Street in Chichester meets Route 28, he said, VHB visualized closing down the turn-off that enables vehicles heading south on Route 28 to make a "straight shot" right-hand turn onto Main Street at high speeds.

Area residents who attended the meeting also suggested lining up the north-bound entrance to Main Street more evenly with the entrance to Depot Road, which lies on the opposite side of the highway, and reducing the current 50 mph speed limit at the intersection in order to ensure the safety of vehicles pulling onto Route 28 (one of the observations Bakos said he made during the afternoon rush hour was that drivers waiting to turn north onto Route 28 from Main Street often lose patience after sitting in backed-up traffic for extended periods of time, and pull out when they don't have a wide enough opening to do so).

The major issue at the intersection of Routes 28 and 107 in Pittsfield, Bakos said, is the uneven configuration of the left-turning lanes on the northbound and southbound sides of the highway, which lead to sight line problems.

Further complicating the situation, he said, is the fact that left-turning vehicles on either side of Route 28 are currently forced to yield to on-coming traffic.

Representatives from the DOT said there are plans under way at the state level to alleviate the confusion at the Route 107 intersection by putting in an additional signal for left-turning vehicles, and removing the 'yield on green' sign.

While the possibility was raised at the last PAC meeting of placing crosswalks at the intersection of Route 28 and Maple Street in Barnstead due to the close proximity of the elementary school, Bakos said it would not be effective to change 28's status as a through-road in that area.

Pittsfield Police Chief Robert Wharem suggested that VHB look into the possibility of calling on a state law he recalled reading once that mandated a maximum speed limit of 35 mph in all school zones.

At the intersection of Route 28 and Peachman and White Oak Roads in Barnstead, which was assigned the No. 1 slot on the PAC's 'Top 10' list, Bakos said the major problem is the "geometry," or layout, of the highway, which creates treacherous sight line issues.

While widening the shoulders on that section of Route 28 and installing street lights on White Oak and Peacham Road would improve the situation, he said, any repairs should be coordinated with the DOT's plans to put the $1.5 million allotted for Route 28 in 2010 toward safety improvements.

Explaining that right-of-ways could become an issue in the Peacham/White Oak area, DOT Project Manager Don Lyford suggested that it might be best to hold off on any major repairs to that intersection until the next round of funding becomes available.

Questioning what he saw as the DOT's efforts to once again put much-needed repairs to Route 28 on the backburner, Barnstead Selectman and PAC member Dave Kerr jokingly asked Lyford whether the department would consider allowing town officials to set up tollbooths along the highway as a way of funding the repairs that the state has seemed unable or unwilling to pay for.

Lyford said he did not think it likely.

The remaining two intersections on the 'Top 10' list were North Barnstead Road (where Bakos suggested leveling off the approach to Route 28 and dropping the crest at the top of the hill in order to improve sight lines) and Stockbridge Corner Road in Alton (where he proposed making the turnoff from the northbound side of Route 28 a one-way road, trimming back vegetation at the side of the roadway that hinders sight lines, and painting a new stop bar at the end of Stockbridge Corner for vehicles turning onto 28).

Urging PAC members to notify VHB if they felt anything had been missed, he explained that the engineering firm will next begin to formalize its findings in a report.

Izard explained that the LRPC and CNHRPC should receive VHB's report by Aug. 7, and will then correlate it with the information obtained by the PAC's safety audit teams earlier this year to create a draft report on the entire project that will be presented to the PAC at the committee's next meeting in August.

After making any necessary revisions, he said, the planning commissions should have the final report completed by the end of August and then bring it to the selectmen in each of the five towns in early September asking for their endorsement.

Next meeting

The next and final PAC meeting has tentatively been scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 20, at 2 p.m. at a location yet to be determined (most likely somewhere in Chichester).

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

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