As Stockbridge traffic study begins, 'everything is on the table'

Stockbridge is contracting with the Springfield office of VHB (Vanasse Hangen Brustlin) for recommendations for the accident-plagued four-way intersection at the Red Lion Inn, where state Routes 7 (South Street) and 102 (Main Street) and Pine Street meet, often confusing drivers unfamiliar with the traffic pattern.

STOCKBRIDGE — The long-awaited professional traffic study seeking solutions to enhance motorist and pedestrian safety in the congested downtown area is set to launch within a few weeks, with a report expected by year's end.

The town is contracting with the Springfield office of VHB (Vanasse Hangen Brustlin) for recommendations for the accident-plagued four-way intersection at the Red Lion Inn, where state Routes 7 (South Street) and 102 (Main Street) and Pine Street meet, often confusing drivers unfamiliar with the traffic pattern. It's a three-way stop sign setup, with motorists heading west on 102 and turning south on Route 7 getting the right of way.

The engineers also will examine the four-way intersection at Main, East and Vine streets in front of the firehouse, where Routes 7 and 102 meet.

The first step is to collect peak-season traffic counts, according to state Department of Transportation standards. As spelled out by the contract, the data will be gathered at both intersections from 7 to 11 a.m. and 2 to 6 p.m. on a typical weekday during the summer, as well as from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on a Saturday. VHB also will install a roadway traffic recorder on Main Street for a 48-hour period to monitor traffic volume and speed.

There have been four accidents at the so-called Red Lion intersection this year, Police Chief Darrell Fennelly told The Eagle. The most recent, in early April, did not result in serious injuries, but a driver involved in a two-vehicle collision Feb. 27 was treated at Berkshire Medical Center. A three-vehicle pileup Feb. 22 caused damage to town and private property, but no one was hurt.

"Everything is on the table," Fennelly said, noting that any recommendations from the traffic engineers would require approval by the Select Board and then by town voters. Funding for the study, which will cost $13,900, was approved at a special town meeting last January.

"We're open to almost anything that's going to help safety at the intersections," Fennelly said. Possible solutions range from extra signage, painting of directional lines to assist drivers making turns or a possible roundabout, although informal discussion of that approach has been met with a cool reception from many townspeople.

For this summer, it's "status quo" at the Red Lion intersection, Fennelly said. The department's three mobile radar trailers will be deployed to slow traffic approaching downtown but, he stressed, "We do not put officers in the middle of the intersection, except for a special event" such as a funeral or the annual Mercy Sunday at the Congregation of Marian Fathers.

After VHB performs its traffic counts, engineers will visit the Main Street corridor to observe conditions during peak hours, monitoring the flow of vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists. The contract specifies that special attention will be focused on parking areas along the street, pedestrian crosswalks, bicycle lanes and speed limits. Photos and text will document the findings.

Other steps planned by the engineers:

- Examination of crash information for the past five years, using the MassDOT crash database that includes the Red Lion Inn intersection. The report will include the number of crashes, descriptions of the incidents, and a calculation of the crash rate at each location along the Main Street corridor.

- VHB will project traffic volume for 2025, based on this year's traffic counts, including peak one-hour turning movements for mornings, evenings and Saturdays. The predicted growth rate of traffic over the next seven years will include "any planned background developments that could increase traffic in the area or the region," the contract states. The projections will help determine the "best fit" improvement alternatives, according to the company.

- Alternatives for the two intersections, based on 2025 traffic-volume predictions, will be assessed, also taking speed and crash data into account.

- If the study recommends consideration of a roundabout for the Red Lion intersection, a Sidra Intersection software package will be used by VHB. The software is widely used around the nation and the world to help engineer and design traffic-flow solutions, such as roundabouts.

- In its report, VHB will emphasize potential choices "that serve as traffic-calming measures and improve the safety and mobility of all roadway users," the contract states. Alternatives will be summarized for town leaders, with a maximum of two recommendations for each of the two intersections.

- The final memorandum, prepared according to MassDOT requirements, will include findings that "should be considered conceptual in nature until a field survey can be developed and more detailed engineering can occur," the contract noted.

VHB was ranked by the Boston Business Journal in March as second among the state's top engineering firms based on annual billings. The company employs 1,350 engineers, scientists, planners and designers at 24 offices along the East Coast, from Maine to Florida.

The study would not include a field survey, preliminary design or application assistance for state funding.

At the Jan. 22 special town meeting, Fennelly pointed out that, since 2008, there have been 78 crashes at the Red Lion intersection, resulting in 13 injuries, including one that was serious and incapacitating, and nine ambulance transports. Fennelly has blamed the accidents, in part, on "aggressive, distracted driving" and confusion by motorists unfamiliar with the intersection's three-way stop signs.

Discussion of a possible traffic circle, rotary or roundabout has been vigorous, and substantial opposition surfaced to any potential multimillion-dollar project that would drastically change the look of Norman Rockwell's downtown.

At the special town meeting, the article adopted by voters did not mention the specific Red Lion intersection. Instead, it sought approval "to raise and appropriate, transfer from available funds, borrow or otherwise provide a sum of money for the purpose of obtaining an updated Traffic Study related to intersections on Main Street."

The Select Board had voted 2-1 to bring funding for the traffic study to voters for a decision. Selectman Terry Flynn dissented, calling any study that involved a potential traffic circle or roundabout "a complete waste of tax dollars. A traffic circle or roundabout in that section of our town is basically unthinkable."

Selectman Ernest "Chuckie" Cardillo, also the town's fire chief, urged an open mind pending the study's outcome.

"I go through that intersection a lot, and there are so many near-misses, almost every time I go through," he said.

As Select Board Chairman Donald Chabon put it, "If a little green sign would solve the problem, I'd be the first one out there digging a hole for the signpost."

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.