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DOT seeking comment on Franconia Parkway

Latest improvement project ahead of schedule

October 20, 2011
FRANCONIA — The New Hampshire Department of Transportation had good news about the Franconia Notch Parkway last Thursday: One, the DOT is ahead of schedule with the latest improvements it has been making. And two, the seven-mile, two-lane stretch is still adequate 30 years after a compromise was made to protect the environment and make access to the North Country better.

Officials with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation said the parkway — which is one of only two sections with less than two lanes in one direction within the interstate highway system— has a modest crash rate compared to other sections of Interstate 93. Also, according to 20-year projections, it will be able to handle the volume of traffic for years to come without additional lanes.

The DOT gave a preview of a report on the general safety of the parkway last Thursday evening at Cannon Mountain in an effort to get public feedback from motorists and emergency responders who have to navigate the seven-mile stretch every day. The report was required by legislation that had to do with the state's 10-year transportation improvement plan, and the final version is due to the governor, the Governor's Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transportation (GACIT) and the general court by Nov. 15.

On Nov. 18, 1977, the DOT, the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests signed an agreement, which has since been modified, but always tries to balance the best interests of the environment in the Franconia Notch State Park with the needs of motorists.

John Butler, who is the preliminary design supervisor with the Bureau of Highway Design, said that from 2002 to 2010 there were a total of 172 crashes along the parkway, some of which were clustered into two "hot spots" — one near The Flume Gorge's northbound off-ramp (exit 35A) and another between the Cannon Mountain and aerial tramway exits (34C and 34B). Butler said the department is still unsure of what is contributing to those clusters. Fifty-three percent of the crashes occur December through March.

As for the parkway's design, it will never meet full highway standards because of the unique restrictions placed on it, but, in general, the curvatures of the road are acceptable for the speed limit, and the grade mostly adheres to the 7 percent rule of thumb, Butler said.

The width of the lanes and shoulders were a concern to some people in the audience, especially for emergency works and towing companies. The lanes are 11-feet-wide — versus the normal 12 feet — and the widths of the shoulders are two feet if there are two lanes in one direction and nine feet if there is one lane. Emergency workers said that can be a tight squeeze for their vehicles when traffic is backed up and people don't always follow the rule of pulling off the right side of the road as much as possible.

However, there didn't seem to be much hope for a solution. Michael Dugas, chief of preliminary design for the DOT, said adding any lanes would violate the state's agreement with the club and the forest society, and in some places there isn't room to widen the road.

Other suggestions included improving communication to motorists by adding French on road signs as a nod to New Hampshire's Canadian visitors. Motorists unfamiliar with the area also often don't realize the extreme weather conditions that the notch can experience, and some people felt that could be helped by additional signage.

Dugas said he would take the suggestions into consideration when writing up the final report.

As for the latest project, John Seely of the DOT's Construction Bureau said the crews are three months ahead of schedule and the new construction should by done by July 4, 2012.

The federal government covered 90 percent of the cost of improvements, which include the new guardrail, better and new crossovers and brighter paint used for lines on the road as well as less visible things such as drainage.

Anyone wishing to add input for the report on the parkway may do so until Nov. 1. Email jbutler@dot.stat.nh.us.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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