WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A public hearing on a $3.1 million roundabout at the intersection of Routes 7 and 43 raised concerns over Route 7's steep grade leading into the intersection and the impact on the historic Store at Five Corners.
The concept of a roundabout, however, seemed to be generally supported after state officials made clear its construction should not impinge upon the 239-year-old store, though there are lingering concerns about the steep hill.
The state Department of Transportation on Tuesday night unveiled plans at 25 percent design phase for the roundabout to slow speeds and improve safety at the junction. Construction is projected for late 2023 or early 2024.
There's been one fatal crash since 2013 and an accident rate nearly two times the state average.
Currently there is a stop sign at Route 43 and Green River Road entering Route 7, a flashing light at 43 and channelized righthand turns.
"Although concrete median dividers were constructed several years ago, in an effort to clarify operations on Route 43 eastbound and westbound approaches, the intersection remains challenging for drivers to navigate," said project manager Jonathan Freeman.
The project was initiated a couple years ago because the intersection has "historically faced safety issues," he said. "A contributing factor has been the high speeds on the downhill portion of Route 7 southbound. The slope results in restricted sight lines for drivers exiting Route 43."
There's also been some confusion on who has the right of way. The intersection has a crash rate of 1.52 per million cars compared to the state average of 0.57 statewide.
The roundabout concept found general support through surveys and discussions with stakeholders last year, Freeman said, who added that the use of signalization was not considered warranted because of the low traffic volume.
The design, updated from last November, now includes a pedestrian crosswalk linking Bloedel Park with the store and an exit into the roundabout from the store parking lot. The southern approach will also have a curve designed to slow vehicles.
Resident Peter Traub questioned why there was no public involvement at the 75 percent design phase. Freeman said the public participation is largely before and at the 25 percent phase but added that the town will be responsible for any additional landscaping within the roundabout and that, possibly, would be the chance for the public to weigh in.
"I do think that a great deal of the excitement that we had around this project was the gateway opportunity," said MassDOT's Michael Trepanier. "We wouldn't want to miss the opportunity to collaborate on that. ... perhaps it wouldn't be as formal as this public hearing is this evening but having something that resembles more of a design workshop at the next stage of design."
About three dozen people dropped into the hourlong Zoom hearing, with several expressing support for the project.
"As someone who both drives and cycles through this intersection and who's familiar with roundabouts elsewhere, I thank you for pursuing this project," wrote James Kolesar.
"I'm concerned about whose property and how much you have to be taking, specifically the Store at Five Corners," said South Williamstown resident Susan Schnenski, adding that she hoped they could keep the amount of parking. "If an out-of-control truck comes roaring down the hill, and has to plow through that middle, wouldn't it behoove us to have very little fancy landscaping in the middle?"
Officials said the boundaries of the store's parking lot would not change, pointing out on the plan where the current grass strip by the roadway would remain. Trepanier said they were very sensitive to any property impacts at the store.
"I would argue that the landscaping is a cue to the driver to slow down and to purposely reduce their sight distance to make them feel uncomfortable driving too fast," Freeman said in response to plantings or sculptures within the circle.
The town is expected to work with MassDOT and the South Williamstown Community Association on short-term and longer-term treatment of the gateway. MassDOT will also be conferring with the Massachusetts Historical Commission later in the process because of the area's designation as a National Historic District.
Resident John Umlauf said his concern was the well-being and safety of residents and people traveling through the area.
"I am in favor of roundabouts. I think they do a fine job. My question is the application and efficacy here in the event, the unlikely event, but the event that we produce more accidents here ... What's plan B? This is a tough bill to unring," he said. He also asked about a passing lane north because trucks would have to essentially stop at the roundabout before going up the hill, something a couple other participants broached.
MassDOT officials said any "plan B" would be to restore the intersection to its current configuration. They said they have considered the potential for a climbing lane but it is not in the scope of work at this time because of funding constraints.
District 1's Mark Moore said he drives Route 7 daily and is very aware of the climbing issues and "I'll be the first to complain if it become an issue."
"I really don't want a climbing lane. We don't need more pavement in this historic crossroads," said Schneski. "It seems like there are other simpler ways to solve the problem. But anyway, if it's going to go ahead, I hope you can do it well, the fewer lanes the better ... and try not to take too much of people's property. So stay away from the store, if you have to slant it off in another direction."
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