5 Corners Roundabout

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is proposing the installation of a roundabout — it’s also known as a rotary — at the Five Corners intersection in Williamstown, seen from Route 43 looking toward Route 7. This columnist believes that a properly timed traffic signal is better than a rotary for dealing with dangerous intersections.

LENOX — The southern gateway to Williamstown, where Routes 7 and 43 converge, has long been one of the most scenic intersections in the county. The historic, ultimate New England look of the South Williamstown neighborhood, augmented by The Store at Five Corners, remains untouched since I first saw it as a lad in the 1950s.

Heading north on the state highway, known locally as Cold Spring Road, affords one of the best views in the Berkshires, with the Taconic Range and the Green Mountains of Vermont in the distance. The alternative northeastern route into Williamstown, Green River Road, unaltered as well, remains one of the region’s most rustic, pastoral byways.

No wonder some South Williamstown denizens oppose a potential state project three or four years from now to reduce the number of crashes at the Five Corners by constructing a $1.5 million roundabout — aka rotary. Department of Transportation designers aim for a 71 percent reduction in accidents there, and an 87 percent decline in crashes causing deaths and serious injuries. The DOT is seeking public comment until Feb. 3.

As Bette Craig, head of the South Williamstown Community Association, told The Eagle recently, “That intersection is definitely a problem, but I just don’t think a roundabout is the right way to go. And that is a beautiful entrance to town. I don’t see how a roundabout will make it any better.”

Mark Thaisz, a resident who had a close call in a 1989 mishap at the intersection, supports the idea, with reservations: “Whether they can fit it into that slot, I don’t know. It’s awfully tight. But, if it does, I think it would be a positive thing.”

I’ve always considered it a hazardous spot. The state has presented four years of data, from 2013 to 2017, showing 20 accidents at the junction, including four head-on collisions with one fatality and three injuries.

Here’s another idea: Why not urge the state to create a fully signalized intersection, meaning a traffic light? Changing the light to red in either direction would be triggered by a subpavement sensor, just like along the Lenox bypass (Routes 7 and 20). The signal could be given a vintage design, in keeping with the neighborhood’s appearance.

Whether this would be more palatable to the neighborhood is unclear. Take the notorious Red Lion Inn intersection in Stockbridge, where advocates of a roundabout have been stymied by local opposition. Norman Rockwell Land is no more likely to accept a roundabout, or a traffic light, than to welcome a fast-food chain, like the one with arches, in the poster town for New England tradition.

In fact, the Stockbridge Select Board is about to review new traffic study data for the past 18 months since it approved a traffic consultant’s low-cost plan ($10,000 to $15,000) to try a small painted island with pavement markings and nearby signage at the intersection of Routes 7, 102 and Pine Street. The existing three-way stop signs survive, retaining the right of way for westbound traffic on Main Street.

The town’s hired consultant, VHB, based the trial on its $132,000 study of downtown traffic issues that offered a range of options but ruled out a roundabout with a projected cost of $2 million to $3 million.

One of the options still on the table would replace the island with a slightly raised pavement, a $430,000 to $550,000 solution for the Red Lion intersection, supposedly flagged by the state as among the most dangerous in Berkshire County.

But, Select Board member Roxanne McCaffrey pushed back against that notion. “We do not have fatalities there, very few accidents, even prior to doing anything, just a handful of fender-benders per year,” she stated at last Thursday’s board meeting. “Everybody has to put this in perspective; we’re trying to modify traffic behavior, slow people down, and we’ve started to manage that.”

The Select Board will begin exploring three options presented by the VHB traffic engineers at a meeting next month, which could produce a decision to do nothing further, or to recommend one of the no-roundabout choices to annual town meeting voters in the spring.

In Dalton, a roundabout for the junction of Main and South Streets remains on the table, according to Select Board Chairman Robert Bishop Jr. It’s on the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission’s list of transportation improvement projects recommended to the state … for 2024.

Another roundabout project remains at the starting gate, for the intersection of Routes 23 and 7 in Great Barrington.

I’ve traversed roundabouts elsewhere in Massachusetts that are easily navigated. Others, including one near the state university campus in Albany, N.Y., are a white-knuckle challenge.

Call me old-fashioned, but it seems that a properly timed traffic signal, ideally triggered by the approach of vehicles, is the best solution for dangerous intersections.

Even in Stockbridge, where the ghost of Rockwell lives on, tradition eventually must merge with common sense.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.