In Stockbridge, roundabout proposal begs question: Go with flow, or change status quo?
STOCKBRIDGE — Chelsea Huff watches traffic move through the notoriously tricky intersection of Routes 7 and 102, by the Red Lion Inn, pointing out driving errors in real time.
Interrupted on her walk downtown by a curious reporter, the Stockbridge resident eyes a van traveling west on Route 7 stopping at the intersection to make a left that will keep him on the same route. The van halts, even though it is the only vehicle at the three-way stop without a "stop" sign.
"People travel and they sort of stop; you're not supposed to stop. It's like, 'Just go through, go through,'" said Huff, 32, motioning toward the traffic.
The awkward, wide meeting of Routes 7 and 102 and Pine Street leads to confusion, aggressive driving and, increasingly, motor vehicle accidents. At a recent special town meeting, Stockbridge Police Chief Darrell Fennelly told residents that in the past 10 years, there have been 78 crashes at the intersection resulting in 13 injuries. Two of these accidents took place in February of this year: one involved three vehicles, and the other sent a person to the hospital, he said.
Stockbridge is searching for an engineer to conduct a traffic study of the intersection and propose safety upgrades there that preserve the character of the town — a balancing act that the 279-year-old town has been grappling with for years. There is no consensus in Stockbridge on how traffic there should be improved, or if it even needs improvement, according to residents interviewed downtown Wednesday.
The proposal that has received the most attention, so far, is the installation of a modern roundabout, a small traffic circle that would keep vehicles moving, all in the same direction, through the intersection.
But "modern" and Stockbridge go together about as well as lacquer and antiques, so the town is exploring its options.
"I really hope something happens there," Huff said. "I'm in favor of [a roundabout], and a lot of people in town are, too. The people who aren't, they must not have to take a left [off Route 7/South Street] at that intersection."
Stockbridge is entrenched in its well-preserved, pre-American — the town was founded before the Revolutionary War — and early-American history. The community draws in tourists as well as people looking to lead slower-paced lives. Residents still pick up their mail from the post office.
To many people, the idea of putting a roundabout in the center of town is ridiculous.
"I don't know what the solution is, but it's not this," said resident John Morse, 80, who was at the post office Wednesday with his wife, Lynda. "Can't they get someone to direct traffic down there?"
"People say [the intersection is] confusing, but not more confusing than a roundabout," said Lynda Morse, 70. "A roundabout is a no-go."
"It would turn the town into something different than what it is," her husband added. "That's too urban for Stockbridge."
While a roundabout isn't the only proposal for the Routes 7 and 102 intersection, transportation professionals are touting the traffic design's safety and efficiency.
"There's about an 80 percent reduction in severe crashes — those causing personal injury and fatalities — so it's really important as a safety measure," said Stephen Savaria, senior project manager at Fuss & O'Neill, a Western Massachusetts engineering firm.
"They are cheaper, I believe, to install and operate," said Cole Fitzpatrick, a research engineer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst civil engineering department. "You don't need power like you would with a stoplight, and it can be more aesthetically pleasing — you can do a planting, put up a sign."
The traffic design also gets a nod of approval from Adams Police Chief Richard Tarsa Jr. His town has the only roundabout in Berkshire County.
"It works really well," Tarsa said of the two-year-old roundabout at Route 8 and Friend Street, "and I had my doubts."
Tarsa was concerned that the odd traffic design would increase accidents — and it did, for a while. But now that drivers have gotten used to it, Tarsa said, accidents in the area are down. Roundabouts could benefit Stockbridge as well, he said.
"I travel through [the Stockbridge intersection] there myself quite a bit, and I think it would work. I think it could be a good solution to their traffic problems there," Tarsa said. "It's not like a rotary, like the one in Agawam. It's just a roundabout designed to keep traffic flowing."
Indeed, there was a learning curve when it came to drivers getting accustomed to the roundabout.
On Wednesday, people along Park Street in Adams gave the traffic circle mixed reviews.
Evan Bates, owner of ARh+Lab Tattoo on Park, said he grew up near the Route 8/Friend Street intersection and, as a result, witnessed a number of tragic accidents.
"I've seen people die, stuff like that," said Bates, 38. "The highway's bigger now, it's better than it used to be. It was super congested, but I hear now out-of-town truckers blast right through it."
Tarsa said that, in Adams' first winter with the roundabout, a few truckers did have trouble seeing the new, short feature in the snow and that, occasionally, a distracted driver will cause an accident at the intersection, but the crashes have been less severe.
"People weren't too sure who should yield to who, and our accident volume did go up in the beginning," he said. "We did have a few in the early stages, but it righted itself out."
"I think this made a big difference to the people going east-west," said Randy Cormier, 48, owner of Bohemian Road on Park Street. "It seems to be steady."
Jonathan Jangrow, 43, owner of Straight Edge Barber, also on Park, said a traffic light would have been a better solution for the intersection.
"I think it's fine, though," he said in between a conversation with a friend outside the shop.
"I hit a pole there the other day," his friend noted before taking a quick walk to the other side of the street.
"You need to know how to drive first," Jangrow laughed.
Not a rotary
Roundabouts have become the darlings of traffic design because of their safety and efficiency. The design has been popular in Europe since the 1980s, said Savaria, the Fuss & O'Neill engineer, but didn't cross the pond until the 1990s. Since then, Americans have been slow to adopt roundabouts, perhaps scared off by the similar-looking, giant rotaries built in the '40s, '50s and '60s.
In Western Massachusetts, two good examples of the high-speed (30 to 50 mph), weaving traffic pattern employed in rotaries are in West Springfield, before the bridges going into Springfield. The behemoth at Routes 5 and 57 in Agawam, which Tarsa mentioned, is a good one, too.
Roundabouts are different from rotaries in that they are smaller and there is no weaving of traffic between vehicles exiting and entering the circle. The small diameter and specific exit/entry angles in roundabouts help to keep traffic speed around 15 to 20 mph, Savaria said.
The reason roundabouts are considered a safe traffic design include the slow speed, single-direction traffic and reduced potential points of collision.
In just about any four-way intersection, Savaria said, there are 32 spots where vehicles can collide, but in a roundabout, there are only eight.
"Collisions can still occur for all the reasons they do: distracted driving, impaired/under the influence, or just ignoring the regulations," Savaria said, "[but] because they're going in the same direction, going slowly, the severity of the collision is greatly reduced."
For pedestrians crossing a roundabout, crosswalks typically are placed to connect with islands that separate entering and exiting traffic. The idea is that the slow-moving driver will be able to spot and stop for pedestrians, and people on foot will only have to cross one direction of traffic at a time.
If Stockbridge residents decide that something needs to be done to calm traffic at the Red Lion Inn intersection, a roundabout isn't the only option. The most popular among residents interviewed Wednesday was having a police officer direct traffic during the busy summer months.
Another suggested making the intersection a clearly marked four-way stop instead of the three-way stop that's there now.
"Would it be un-Rockwellian to have a traffic light?" opined resident Stephen Tournas. "All they'd have to do is put a stop sign in; it's the simplest solution, and it would make it like most intersections."
Town officials are waiting for the results of a $15,000 intersection traffic study before moving ahead with making plans for the intersection. Whatever is proposed, resident Katie McTeigue, 52, knows how she'll vote at town meeting: "Unless it's something to beautify or preserve it," she said, "I think the town should stay just the way it is."
Kristin Palpini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @kristinpalpini on Twitter, and 413-629-4621.
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