LENOX -- The state Department of Transportation's solution to the accident-prone Pittsfield Road-Holmes Road intersection -- a new traffic signal system that includes a flashing yellow left-turn arrow to alert southbound drivers on Routes 7 and 20 to oncoming northbound motorists -- is drawing reactions of cautious optimism from local officials.
The MassDOT remedy was outlined at a meeting on Wednesday with District 1 Director Peter Niles at the regional headquarters off Route 7A attended by Town Manager Gregory Federspiel and Lenox Police Chief Stephen O'Brien.
The intersection has been the site of three serious accidents this fall and 17 since the beginning of 2009, according to data compiled by O'Brien and forwarded to MassDOT
In support of its solution, MassDOT pointed to use of the new signal configuration in use in Michigan, Nevada, and the St. Louis, Mo., area and cited research funded by the Federal Highway Administration that left-turn crashes can be reduced by as much as 20 percent after signals like it are installed.
"I'm very pleased that they jumped right on this and are taking action," said Federspiel following the meeting. "I'm hoping this will lead to some improvements. This is a very good step forward."
Federspiel emphasized that solving intersection problems is always a balancing act to keep vehicles moving as efficiently as possible, so going with only a red and green arrow would slow down the traffic flow
"I applaud the state on their swift decision-making in creating a plan of action," said O'Brien. "I'm not a state engineer, but I'm certainly glad they have made some type of effort to rectify the hazards of the intersection. I hope the action plan is implemented as swiftly as it was created. The sooner, the better."
Asked whether he's optimistic that the plan will reduce the accident rate, O'Brien responded: "I'm confident that anything is better than what exists right now. I hope the new signal head will be the answer to our problem. I prefer whatever creates a reduction in the accident rate. If this is the solution, I'm all for it."
According to the agency, the new signal with four, left-turn arrows -- a first of its kind for the state -- will replace the existing one, which allows left turns on green as long as southbound motorists yield to oncoming northbound traffic. The current signal also includes a brief left-turn directional green arrow when northbound traffic is stopped on red.
The new signal left-turn arrows include one steady red arrow, indicating that left turns are prohibited when traffic emerging from Holmes Road has the right of way; one steady yellow arrow, indicating the signal is changing from green to red; a new, flashing yellow arrow, indicating that drivers can proceed with left turns after yielding to oncoming vehicles; and one steady green arrow, indicating left turns are permitted.
When the signal displays a green arrow, southbound drivers can turn left onto Holmes Road and be protected from oncoming northbound traffic, according to the plan. When the signals turn green for vehicles traveling northbound, the arrow for Routes 20 and 7 will change to a flashing yellow.
"I would have been more happy with a solid red arrow," said Select Board Chairman Kenneth Fowler. "Knowing what I know about how the traffic at that intersection operates, it still gives the [southbound] driver the ability to challenge oncoming [northbound] traffic. It would seem to be more prudent to have a red arrow rather than a flashing yellow."
"The flashing yellow has to be proven," he added.
"The good news is that they're taking this seriously and coming up with a solution," said Selectman David Roche. "Anything's got to be better than what's there now. At least they've listened to us."
Roche pointed out that a solid left-turn red arrow could cause motorists seeking to make a left onto Holmes Road to be backed up as far as the Yankee Motor Lodge during rush-hour travel times.
"That's a busy, busy turn," Roche said.
Federspiel also pointed out that northbound motorists could be held up as well. The intersection sees 27,400 vehicle trips per day, on average, year-round, according to DOT studies.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, reached by phone en route to the Statehouse in Boston, voiced enthusiasm for the plan, pointing out that its effectiveness cannot be determined until it has been tried.
"It's very straightforward on when you can turn left," he said. "You can't legislate human error. Some people will still run red signals. But I'm very intrigued, it's an exciting concept, and if people pay attention and are educated about it, this signal is very clear."
According to MassDOT spokesperson Michael Verseckes, the installation is not likely to be completed until about three months from now because new equipment for the three signal heads at the intersection has to be special-ordered at a cost of $10,000 to $15,000. Federspiel said he hopes the timetable can be speeded up.
While acknowledging that the state solution is not perfect, it is expected to reduce the number of mishaps involving left turns onto Holmes Road, Verseckes added. If that's the case, the new technology would be extended to other accident-prone intersections statewide, including some elsewhere in Berkshire County.
He explained that concerns about a backup of vehicles seeking to make the left prompted the solution allowing the turns on a flashing yellow directional signal when it's safe to do so.
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