Clarence Fanto: After safety issue go-round, intersection decision might be near

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STOCKBRIDGE — Thousands of motorists —16,800 in midsummer — navigate through downtown Stockbridge on state Routes 7 and 102 every day, according to MassDOT.

For Berkshire County drivers as well as nonresidents, it's a white-knuckle maneuver through crosswalks, diagonal parkers pulling out of their spaces and two outmoded intersections, notably the four-way Red Lion convergence with its three stop signs. At long last, a fix might be at hand.

Stockbridge town leaders, often on the hot seat, deserve credit for commissioning a downtown traffic study, a highly professional and well-received report from traffic engineer Juliet Locke, and scheduling prompt action.

There has been maximum transparency along the way — Locke presented her findings last October at a crowded Select Board meeting. Her informative, resident-friendly report was greeted with deserved kudos. She led an eye-opening walking tour of the Main Street corridor on a wintry morning in late November.

Hardy residents joined the tour and raised pointed questions, especially about the report's two central recommendations: A modern roundabout at the Red Lion intersection to enhance public safety and ease the often-tangled flow of traffic, and a reconfigured traffic pattern at the state highway convergence by the firehouse, just east of the business district.

On Monday night at 7 at the Town Offices gymnasium in the former schoolhouse, the Select Board will get an earful from the public, followed by deliberations and a potential vote on which of the report's recommendations to adopt.

As a citizen who often drives through Norman Rockwell's Main Street, I feel safe in suggesting that doing nothing is not an option.

Like many Berkshirites, I've witnessed and experienced close calls in downtown Stockbridge. Pedestrians are hard to spot after dark in the poorly designated crosswalks. The right of way at the Red Lion intersection is subject to misinterpretation. Years ago, when traffic flowed freely east to west and vice versa along Main Street (Route 102), while northbound and southbound motorists had to observe stop signs, the pattern seemed more logical.

Whether the roundabout recommended by the traffic study is the ideal solution is up to the wise men on the Select Board, with due consideration given to public reaction. This approach has found favor in the Albany metro area, on Cape Cod, even at a state highway intersection in Adams. The traffic study points out that a roundabout keeps traffic flowing more smoothly with fewer delays, compared with an array of stop signs.

The two downtown intersections, on MassDOT's radar because of 25 serious accidents involving injuries or property damage exceeding $1,000 at each one over the past five years, would be reconfigured, if the town so chooses, on the state's dollar. Those collision rates are well above average not only for Berkshire County — it's within the top 5 percent for accident frequency — but also statewide. And the statistics don't include fender benders and numerous close calls.

While the Red Lion oval-shaped roundabout proposal has garnered the most attention, traffic engineer Locke's proposal for the heavily traveled firehouse intersection is an "out-of-the-box solution," as she described it.

Currently, the intersection is a mind-bending maze of multiple approaches, stop signs and lack of a pedestrian crossing, making turning especially challenging for northbound traffic.

Locke's Rx involves a reconfigured T-intersection for Route 102 (Main Street) and Route 7 (East Street), with a stop sign for southbound motorists, thus improving sightlines and simplifying northbound left turns onto Route 7.

She has emphasized that the study's recommendations take into account the town's Rockwellian character, aesthetics and dedication to historic preservation.

"That has to be a major consideration in everything we do here," Select Board Chairman Donald Chabon agreed during the Nov. 28 walking tour. "We're not going to change the aesthetics of the town, and what we do has to fit and has to be attractive, and there has to be a consensus of what that looks like."

The Stockbridge study's proposals for enhanced signage and revamped downtown crosswalks, along with other safety refinements, seem like a slam-dunk.

Town residents will have to advise and consent on whether they support the roundabout solution. As Locke, the traffic engineer, put it: "There are some out there done so nicely, and they're very popular right now. A roundabout significantly reduces the number of vehicular conflict points, and there's really nowhere for a collision, everyone is yielding as they approach."

Traffic signals are off the table, she has assured residents, since her study focused on "options that keep in mind the historic monuments, the historic nature of the downtown area and the amount of roadway users — vehicles, pedestrians, bicyclists, skateboarders, rollerbladers, mopeds, everyone who's out there."

It's a tough balancing act: Protecting the safety of motorists and pedestrians while preserving the downtown streetscape that helps draw visitors by the hundreds of thousands to Stockbridge each year.

We might have an answer after Monday night's meeting.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or on Twitter @BE_cfanto. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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