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Williamstown Selectmen Press State on Emergency Ramp

By Stephen DravisWilliamstown Correspondent
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Robert McCarthy, far left, has strongly advocated for changes in the approach to the emergency truck ramp at the bottom of the Taconic Trail; Mark Moore, left of MassDOT said the state is looking for ways to improve visibility.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Selectmen on Monday night heard two emotional pleas to press the commonwealth to take corrective action on a stretch of road that was the site of a fatal accident two years ago.

The segment of the Taconic Trail (Route 2) that intersects the Cold Spring Road section of Route 7 has been the subject of much discussion in town since truck driver David Belair of Salem died when his tractor-trailer, traveling east on the trail, failed to make the stop at Route 7 and crashed into the woods beside the A-Frame Bakery.

Former longtime Cold Spring resident Robert McCarthy and Sharon Sutter, who owns the A-Frame with her husband, Richard, asked the board demand the state make improvements so it will be easier for runaway trucks to use the emergency truck ramp built in 2002.

The ramp was on the agenda because a representative from the state Department of Transportation's Highway Divison was before the board to discuss the results of a safety study commissioned by MassDOT and steps the state agency was taking to improve conditions on the road.

MassDOT plans a number of steps to improve drivers' ability to see the entrance to the truck, including better signage and clearing vegetation.

Mark Moore explained that MassDOT also plans to install a camera at the ramp to document how many trucks actually use the safety feature — in order to compile data that could be used in the future to take further steps.

McCarthy angrily challenged what he characterized as an incremental approach by the state.

"Until they fix the approach to that ramp, you can put signs up all day, but someone is going to die," McCarthy said.

As he has done at past meetings, McCarthy pointed out that the 2011 accident happened at a time a day when — during the school year — school buses would have been traveling on Route 7.

Siezing on MassDOT's characterization of road reconfiguration as a "high cost" item worthy of further evaluation, McCarthy pointed out that the cost of inaction could be much greater.

"Expensive? How do you put a price on 50 lives on a school bus," McCarthy asked.

"Don't say, 'We're going to wait three years or four years and see what the cameras pick up.' ... I hope you prove me wrong. I hope it never happens. But after 65 years, I can tell you it's going to happen."

The Sutters opened the A-Frame four years ago.

Sharon Sutter fought back tears as she describes the anguish of knowing that Belair's truck could have killed her own children or passengers and motorists on Route 7. And, like McCarthy, she brought her own personal knowledge of conditions at the intersection that did not show up in the safety study prepared for MassDOT by the Norwood-based BETA Group civil engineering firm.

"I see a lot of trucks coming down that mountain," Sutter said. "I've seen one stop halfway out on Route 7 with its brakes smoking.

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Selectman Tom Costley pressed Moore on possible road modifications.

"I'm lucky to be alive. And I'm alive because of the 7,000-pound concrete blocks my husband and I put out there (in the bakery's parking lot). And they're the only reason my kids are alive.

"I can tell you this: [The ramp] does not work."

Each of the selectmen echoed McCarthy's and Sutter's concerns. The most outspoken and quizzical was Tom Costley, who repeatedly pressed Moore for answers about what sort of modifications could be made to the road.

"For the love of God, just change the alignment," Costley said at one point. "We should demand [the state] realign Route 2. They may say no, but then we have to go to someone else."

The issue is whether a truck driver who has lost his or her brakes (and therefore needs the runaway truck ramp) has enough time to turn into the ramp when it becomes visible on the twisty downhill road. McCarthy has long contended the drivers do not, and he found support in the report prepared by BETA.

"In general, the existing ramp was designed according to standards but other surrounding roadway conditions may create potential safety issues that reduce its effectiveness," the report reads. One of those issues is the "horizontal curvature" of the road, the report notes — alluding to the kind of "high cost" fix MassDOT is not committing to make.

Moore said he had no specific numbers for how much such a modification would cost.

"There are engineering mechanisms to straighten the road at a cost of tens of millions of dollars," he said. "It's just not something we've looked at.

"We're not sure why [Belair] didn't take the ramp. We don't know if the ramp is flawed. That's the problem. I wish we could interview the driver."

The Selectmen decided to ask Town Manager Peter Fohlin to draft a letter to MassDOT thanking it for the study and the steps it has decided to undertake and asking it to undertake further study about realignment of the road as soon as possible.

The board also asked for another study on Monday — this one from the Army Corps of Engineers.

Peter Russell of Save the Spruces asked for a study by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Responding to a request from the recently formed Save The Spruces group of residents at the flood-prone mobile home park, the town will ask the Corps to assess whether the flooding problem can be alleviated at the site.

Save The Spruces chairman Peter Russell and resident Lucy Sherill discussed the group's petition. Sherill spoke informally with members of the Corps recently and was told that a request for study had to come from a public body.

Sherill told the Selectmen that her group believes two streams running onto the property from across Main Street (Route 2) are responsible for the flooding that periodically plagues the park and devastated the community during 2011's Tropical Storm Irene.

"We're trying to preserve ourselves and our space," Sherill said. "We have — in some cases with some difficulty and expense — returned to our homes after Irene, and we're happy there."

The Selectmen voted unamimously to make the request to the Corps — a request that will be made while the town is a co-applicant on a Federal Emergency Management Agency Flood Mitigation grant that is conditioned on closure of the park. After the meeting, Chairman David Rempell said he did not know what would happen if the grant is approved while the Army Corps is conducting a study on how to save the park. But the board plans to take the issues "one at a time," he said.

In other business on Monday, the board decided to draft a letter to the Massachusetts School Building Authority in support of the Mount Greylock Regional School District's next Statement of Interest to participate in the MSBA program.

The board also approved a request from the Mount Greylock board to have a member of the town panel join a committee studying expansion of the regional district to include elementary schools in Williamstown and Lanesborough. Selectman Ronald Turbin will represent the board on that panel.

Humane Race head Alix Cabral, left, and her successor, Dawn Catelotti, received permission for the annual race.

The board gave the green light to Fohlin to start the ball rolling on transfering control of Stetson Court, currently a town road that dead ends off Main Street, to Williams College. The town widened the road six years ago and in the process trespassed onto college land, he explained. The problem either can be resolved by getting an easement from the college or by transferring the road to college control, and the town stands to realize financial benefit if it does the latter.

Since the land on both sides of the road is owned by the college, the move would make sense, Fohlin said.

"There are plenty of streets in town that are owned by the college," he said. "This would just be another."

The board also granted a permit to the Berkshire Humane Society's annual Humane Race for Saturday, May 4. New event co-Chairwoman Dawn Catelotti petitioned the board along with outgoing Chairwoman Alix Cabral.

Tags: Army Corps of Engineers,   emergency ramp,   MassDOT,   Spruces,   truck ramp,   

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