Doubts remain over Main St. project in Great Barrington

Friday May 4, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON -- Despite efforts by state and town representatives to ease public concerns on Thursday about the impact of next year’s Main Street reconstruction project, many residents remained skeptical.

More than 60 residents attended a Massachusetts Department of Trans portation hearing at Crissey Farm regarding the project, which is at the 25-percent design phase. The town hopes to have the project out to bid by the end of the year, with construction commencing in the spring of 2013. The majority of work is expected to be done that year, with some less-intrusive work completed the following spring.

Chip Elitzer, who led the failed effort to kill the project through a special town meeting vote in February 2011, said working through the town’s busy summer season would be the equivalent of giving the downtown a "coronary."

Elitzer said the state funding, and the corresponding requirements to meet certain federal regulations, is what is driving up the cost of the project. Elitzer said the town should allow the state to do work specific to the road and let the town do its own small-scale sidewalk work that is in line with the current look of downtown.

"We’re the best small town in America, and we think we can improve on that?" said Elitzer.

A MassDOT official noted that the vast majority of the project costs are tied to repaving, new curbs, crosswalks and lighting. As far as doing sidewalks piecemeal, he said, one change can lead to problems that require another change and the town wouldn’t be able to avoid regulations on things like disability access.

The hearing came nearly a year after it was originally projected to be held.

Part of the delay can be tied to MassDOT’s denial of a design exemption request pertaining to the slope of the road. The changes mean portions of the road repair will require "full-depth" reconstruction, and will increase the cost from $3.8 million to $5.2 million.

A number of residents raised concerns about how the project can largely be contained to one construction season with these changes or if there are any other major surprises that should be expected.

MassDOT said the hardest point to get to is the "25-percent" phase, so there shouldn’t be any more major changes. Regarding the time frame, MassDOT said the change will only impact 800 feet of the half-mile project and there is language that can be written into a contract, including extended work hours, that should keep the project in the originally projected time frame.

Residents also raised concerns about impact on business during construction, the loss of right-hand turn lanes, and the loss of parking spaces. A total of 24 spaces are expected to be lost when the project is completed, but only five of those are in the core downtown.

Tom Levin, a downtown business owner, said he and other merchants have seen their business drop by 50 percent this year during the ongoing water main replacements.

In response to questions about the establishment of a long-term plan to maintain the increased landscaped areas, Sean Stanton, chairman of the Select Board, said there is a commitment to maintain these areas.

Stanton also said one of the things he’s most pleased about the project is how it will make the town more pedestrian-friendly for everyone, including those with walkers and wheelchairs.

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