Across South County, residents sound alarm to officials on 'dangerous' roads
In two different towns last week, people bemoaned the same problem: speeding on backcountry roads, on tight residential streets and through villages and towns.
Residents in Great Barrington and West Stockbridge called for stricter enforcement of speed limits, and one man even begged town officials to take action.
Two residents told the Great Barrington Select Board last Monday that it's only a matter of time before someone gets killed on East Street or Taconic Avenue — or even while trying to cross Main Street using a crosswalk.
"It's dangerous as hell," said resident Stephen Donaldson of the problem on Taconic Avenue, a residential neighborhood west of downtown. "It's getting worse. People are going to die at some point."
East Street resident David Rosenberg said cars on this narrow artery with 25 mph speed limits are clocking in at around 50 mph, and that closing the Cottage Street bridge earlier this year is making it worse.
"The cars, particularly with the bridge out, are zooming through there," Rosenberg said, noting that some of his neighbors are taking matters into their own hands.
"She stood in front of her property with a hairdryer, pointed it to the road, and the cars did slow down — that's true," he said of another resident.
At the West Stockbridge Select Board meeting last Wednesday, the focus on speeding issues was on Swamp Road, particularly by tractor-trailers coming off the Massachusetts Turnpike and barreling up toward Pittsfield. Now the chief of police is going to see if he can ban semis from using that route and increase enforcement throughout town.
The West Stockbridge town center is also a concern, since most drivers funnel into the village from multiple directions on their way to somewhere else.
The residents' impassioned speeches came the same week as a second person in less than a month was killed at the same Richmond intersection. While visibility is an issue at the intersection of Route 41 and Dublin Road, the state immediately reduced the speed limit from 40 mph to 30 mph as one measure to make it safer.
Police in South County towns say they are doing their best to manage a complicated problem on what are, for the most part, narrow country roads that pass through quaint villages or larger towns like Great Barrington, with many pedestrians and a high volume of traffic on what is a state highway.
Police use electronic speed trailers to try to jolt motorists into awareness. They maintain a presence for a bit in some places, and switch areas so that drivers don't get complacent.
In some towns, like Egremont and Monterey, a long history of a cruiser presence appears to have slowed incoming traffic, even when police aren't sitting there.
But it's summertime, so the living is, well, fast when people on vacation are taking it easy.
"With the locals, they learn quickly, that in this town speeding is enforced," said Egremont Police Chief Jason LaForest. "But we have such transient traffic now."
Some don't think local police are doing enough. "If we don't manage the speeding problem in this town, [police are] not doing their job," Donaldson told board members last week.
He noted that he's seeing a disregard for speed limits, lights and stop signs, particularly "right in front of that police station" in Great Barrington.
"That is insane to me," he told board members, referring to this intersection of Routes 7, 23 and 41, at which the police station sits. "If they aren't keeping an eye out on their front lawn to what's going on with traffic, then we have a real problem in this town. So I'm begging you ... to get off the seat and do something."
That very intersection is on the state's own radar. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is planning to build a roundabout there that will slow traffic, since the agency's stats show it has a higher crash rate than the statewide average.
That plan, says agency spokeswoman Judith Riley, is on target for a late 2020 construction start.
Yet DOT officials met with community outrage about the $2.2 million project at a public hearing at Town Hall last November. Residents and business owners said it is a wasteful public project and will tear up an important commercial area for an extended period, hurting businesses. They also think learning a new system of yielding could result in more smashups. The public comment period for that project is still open, Riley wrote in an email to The Eagle last month.
And Great Barrington Police Chief William Walsh said he is working on a plan based on residents' complaints from that last board meeting, and that his department takes citizen complaints seriously and addresses them "regularly" with a system of enforcement in specific areas.
"We use marked, unmarked patrols and our speed monitor trailer," Walsh wrote in an email, since he is traveling. "We just had it on East St two weeks ago. We already spend a significant [amount] of time monitoring the four way stop at East/Cottage Sts."
After meeting with other town officials last week, he said he will be speaking about the problem and his plan for a number of areas at a Select Board meeting in September.
Donaldson thinks speed humps are a good idea in residential areas like Taconic Avenue in Great Barrington. It was an idea presented by residents in 2015 during a campaign against speeding where Alford Road meets with Taconic, but dismissed as untenable.
"If we need speed humps, we can handle it," he said. "People complain about bikers not being able to ride the Josh Billings [Triathalon] one day a year because there would be speed humps on Taconic. The Tour de France has 3,000 speed humps and these are professional riders. They're not a hazard ... the only thing they're going to do effectively is they're going to slow down the traffic."
Donaldson drew applause with that speech.
West Stockbriedge Police Chief Marc Portieri doesn't think they're a bad idea for the town center.
"We're looking into speed humps," he said in a phone interview. "Our Main Street is unfortunately a lot narrower compared to some of the surrounding towns. We're more of a commuter town. We have a lot of traffic coming in from New York and Tanglewood, so these are little things we can do to slow them down."
The Egremont effect
Speed humps don't appear to be necessary in South Egremont, which is near the New York state line. The village is famous around the Berkshires for its reputation as a speed trap.
LaForest, a former Great Barrington officer who has been police chief for not quite two months, says while police are active at the center of the village, including himself, it's the longstanding memory of a consistent police presence over the years that slows traffic.
He says this can, however, take monitoring and enforcement away from other roads that sorely need it. He also thinks it's good to move around.
"What I think works best is when people don't know where you are," he said. "We mix it up. It works better than sitting in one spot. But we focus on the problem areas a little more."
LaForest said police learn what those problem areas are from residents.
"We're very open for citizens to express their concerns," he said, noting that he and another officer attend monthly meetings of the town's Complete Streets Committee, where residents can bring concerns. He said he welcomes emails, phone calls and walk-ins.
In West Stockbridge, Portieri says his department is planning to "crack down on Swamp Road," however, on what he says is "heavily traveled" year-round with South County traffic using the narrow two-lane road to get to Pittsfield. He said he's working with other town officials and will work with the state to see if tractor trailers can be rerouted.
"It's a work in progress," he said.
But Portieri says dealing with speeders is a daily "learning curve" for his department of seven officers, who don't always issue money citations for speeding.
"It's more of an education, trying to get people to start thinking." He said officers will write up tickets or issue a warning depending on the speed and the demeanor of the driver.
Portieri said that he hopes people will think about speeding as a factor in accidents.
"It's not the crime of the century," he said of driving fast. "But it could turn into that."
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
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