Stockbridge OKs spending for traffic study

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STOCKBRIDGE — Voters have decisively approved spending $132,000 to begin working with the state Department of Transportation to study downtown traffic safety enhancements — including a possible roundabout at the Red Lion Inn intersection.

After nearly an hour of impassioned yet civil debate, residents at Monday's annual town meeting voted 150-34 — well over the required two-thirds supermajority of 123.

The turnout of 203 residents for the three-hour annual town meeting represented just over 12 percent of the 1,661 registered voters.

Other key decisions included approval of the nearly $10.8 million operating budget for town government and education — up 2.3 percent or $249,000 from last year, said Finance Committee Chairman Jay Bikofsky — with overall town spending totaling $12.2 million.

"That is really pretty terrific," he said, noting that the projected 2019-20 tax rate for Stockbridge would be the ninth lowest among the county's 32 communities. The town maintains a AA+ bond rating from Standard and Poor's, the second highest level.

In a secret ballot requested by several residents, voters approved by 101-28 a recommendation to the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee to rename Monument Valley Regional Middle School for civil rights leader and Great Barrington native W.E.B. Du Bois. The nonbinding measure already has been approved by Great Barrington and West Stockbridge — the other two towns in the district. The change still requires a vote by the School Committee.

Voters also approved a citizens petition barring elected Select Board members from paid, appointed employment with the town, with current selectmen exempted, and voted 93-53 for an additional $300,000 to complete funding for the 6,300-square-foot highway garage costing $2,445,000.

But it was the traffic study that prompted the most spirited debate.

The measure will allow the town to draw funds from its stabilization reserves to begin preliminary consulting services and engineering design work with MassDOT.

It's the first step toward potential solutions that may include revamping the accident-prone Red Lion Inn intersection, with a roundabout as only one of five potential approaches. The four way intersection, used by approximately 22,000 vehicles daily, has seen a high rate of crashes.

A possible reconfiguration of the Route 7 and Route 102 intersection with Vine Street at the firehouse is also on the dashboard for consideration, along with Main Street safety improvements.

Select Board Chairman Donald Chabon cited local police reports of 88 accidents involving 11 injuries at the Red Lion intersection since 2007. The crash rate that puts the location among the top 5 percent of dangerous Berkshire intersections, which has captured the attention of MassDOT.

"You are voting tonight on whether to advance these three projects into the preliminary design phase," said professional traffic engineer Juliet Locke of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin (VHB), who has been at the center of a yearslong study of downtown safety problems.

Her study, which was completed last October, also covered the firehouse intersection and the compact, busy Main Street business district, Chabon said.

"Needless to say, this is a potentially big project that touches many of our sensitivities," he said. "Do we really want to invest in our downtown at all and, if so, in what, and how much? Are we willing to consider changes to the areas and if so, what and under what circumstances?

"It is understood as a municipality we have responsibilities and liabilities," Chabon said, acknowledging "conflict" among townspeople over potential solutions to the downtown dangers.

Select Board member Terry Flynn, the lone dissenter when the Select Board voted 2-1 in favor of presenting the $132,000 spending proposal to townspeople, said he favored local solutions that could have been devised by Police Chief Darrell Fennelly and Highway Superintendent Leonard Tisdale, as well as MassDOT. He noted that the state has offered a free traffic safety audit for the troubled Red Lion intersection.

"We obviously want to be wise in spending our money," he said. "We need to think simply, maintaining what we have. We've spent over a year and we really haven't done anything to make these areas safe, to do simple things while we look into whether we want to do something more major."

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But many voters emphasized the need to move full speed ahead on a safety solution.

"We have a problem intersection right in the heart of our town," said Mark Mills. "It's dangerous for our residents and visitors. We all know it's an odd intersection."

He pointed to the three-way stop sign configuration that gives drivers heading west and southbound the right-of-way to make a left turn onto Route 7 toward Great Barrington — a confusing pattern for visitors.

"They hesitate, they stop, they start, somebody plows into them from behind because of all this uncertainty that creates risk," Mills said. "It's a bad combination; we already have had bad results, and this is a step to get us on the road to a good plan."

Warning of a potential tragedy, he declared that "we owe it to townspeople, the people of Berkshire County and the visitors who are the lifeblood of our economy to provide a safe environment. If a disaster happens after we recognize this as a serious problem and we haven't done anything, it will be black mark on the town for some time to come if we haven't acted before a tragedy occurs."

Longtime Main Street resident Fredric D. Rutberg acknowledged it was a "terrible intersection."

Rutberg, who is president and publisher of The Berkshire Eagle, emphasized he was speaking "strictly personally."

Describing a roundabout solution as "not perfect," Rutberg urged voters not to "let perfect be the enemy of the good."

However, veteran town Moderator Gary Johnston asked Fennelly, the police chief, whether there's evidence "that these roundabouts are foolproof, so we're not going to continue what I consider a low level of accidents; incidents that we have now."

Fennelly responded that "I don't think anything is foolproof" but he pointed to studies and statistics indicating "that these improve safety and improve the flow of traffic."

After Johnston cited confusion he witnessed encountering multiple roundabouts while on vacation in the Bahamas and when traveling on Route 128 near Boston, Fennelly offered a light-hearted rejoinder: "I guess the confusion is up to the driver; I don't seem to have any problem with them."

Resident Jane Ryan questioned town officials on how much voters will have a say in future decisions about downtown traffic patterns.

Selectman Ernest "Chuckie" Cardillo emphasized that the engineering design project would offer five state-approved, different solutions to the two intersections.

"The roundabout is not the only one," he noted. "We're not voting on a roundabout. This article gives us a next step, what we need to know to move forward. It doesn't lock us into anything and gives us what we need to make honest, proper decisions that's good for the town."

Cardillo promised "all kinds of open meetings, and you'll be voting on usable state-approved alternatives. The townspeople will have the final say, it won't be the Select Board, and the state will not force us to do anything. This is something we'd never push through without multiple town meetings and input on every option we have."

Locke, the traffic engineer, cited research indicating that roundabouts increase safety, but she doubled down on the fact that a roundabout is "not locked in place" and that "considerable safety improvements have been recommended along the Main Street corridor."

She also alerted voters that if the state determines no improvements are needed for the Red Lion intersection, the town is not bound to take any action there, but the money approved at the meeting would be diverted to Main Street improvements for vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists.

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


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