Pelham Selectmen Continue to Examine Traffic Issues

January 3, 2014
by Lynne Ober

Although the traffic issue in the center of Pelham will be solved with the completion of construction, traffic continues to be an issue in Pelham, thanks to growth of the town.

Pelham’s Planning Director, Jeff Gowan, briefed selectmen on the troubled intersections at Route 38 and Old Gage Hill Road and Sherburne Road and Mammoth Road (Route 128).  At the briefing, New Hampshire Department of Transportation [NHDOT] staff were also present.  Bill Lambert, Michelle Marshall, Trent Zanes and Julie Chizmas from the Nashua Regional Planning Commission all participated in the briefing.

The issues at Old Gage Hill Road and Route 38 are line of sight issues.  While Old Gage Hill Road probably would not be approved today because this intersection is just below the crest of a hill and there is a small store close to this intersection on the Route 38 portion.  Restructuring the road to lower the hill, lowering the speed limit, posting warning signs, clearing brush or completely restructuring the intersection were options that came from a brainstorming session.

At Sherburne Road and Mammoth Road, options continued to revolve around using a roundabout, building traffic islands, installing traffic lights and better signage.

NHDOT Highway Safety Engineer Michelle Marshall reviewed concepts for the Route 38/Old Gage Hill Road intersection and the Mammoth Road (Route 128)/Sherburne Road intersection, explaining how road safety audits were conducted and what they learned from the audits.  Pelham selectmen had been briefed on the use of roundabouts to alleviate traffic at the Sherburne Road and Mammoth Road intersection months ago.  Marshall commented that NHDOT had revised the road safety auditing process.  According to Marshall, the original audit was developed into a report but not carried out into work orders.  The process has been changed to start with a road safety audit and end up with a project.  Marshall told the board that previous road safety audits for Pelham fell into the category of having reports, without associated projects.  She stated she recently submitted work orders to both the district and the traffic bureau to look at possible short-term solutions that came out of the road safety audits done in Pelham and also discussed the federal Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) and associated funding that would be available for the intersections.

Selectman Doug Viger recalled a previous group meeting with selectmen to review short-term solutions, but Marshall, who was new to the team, was unsure if the items previously discussed were captured in the information being presented.  However, Gowan said he believed the short-term solution items were contained in the presentation.

Selectman and Board Chairman Ed Gleason believed the proposal for the board’s approval were two approaches that qualified for the HSIP funding; one proposal for Route 38/Old Gage Hill Road intersection and the other for the Mammoth Road/Sherburne Road intersection.  Marshall reviewed the options for the intersections that would not qualify for the HSIP funds.

Next, Gleason asked what the time line would be for the recommended plans versus the time line associated with the options.  Zanes explained two of the options qualified for the HSIP funding and would need to be approved by federal highway before a project and project schedule would be created.  He said the options that didn’t qualify for the HSIP funding, but might be more effective in improving capacity and at the same time have an affect with safety.

When Gleason asked if there would be any town responsibility associated with funding the options, Zanes said Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ) funds might be available for the roundabout and signals.

When Gowan asked if there was a town match when using CMAQ funds, Zanes did not know and said he’d have to get back to them.  Gowan then said the planning board had a couple forthcoming actions that may be able to provide the town’s match on the project.

Part of the funding process is to establish a monetary benefit of the projects.  When Selectman Hal Lynde questioned how the monetary benefit of the projects was calculated, Marshall said the benefit is based upon the national standard of safety improvements for the intersection.

Then, Lynde asked if traffic flow/ease of traffic was taken into consideration, commenting that he believed that even with the islands and turning lanes on Sherburne Road there would still be traffic-stacking occurring.  He wanted to know if  added capacity during the next decade had been considered and ended by saying that he believed a roundabout (at the Sherburne Road intersection) was the solution and the benefit it would have to traffic flow far exceeded other options.  He thought it might be better to spend the money on a long-term solution to correct the problem and not try for a short-term solution that caused different issues.

Chizmas explained that the improvements fell under the highway safety and improvement programs.  She said traffic congestion was not the intent of the road safety audit.  Chizmas also said CMAQ was a competitive program that the town didn’t have funds for unless they applied and were successful competing with the rest of the state for those funds, and agreed there was an argument that an improvement could be shown through implementing something such as a roundabout.

Gowan understood that highway safety funding may be available for the shorter term solutions, and asked if funding was mutually exclusive, meaning if there was a short-term solution that had federal dollars attached to it would the town then not have the ability or a lesser chance of getting CMAQ funds.  Although Chizmas didn’t have an answer, she commented that if they were to implement the short-term improvements, they would re-assess the area (along with traffic counts) to see what improvement was made to the congestion issue and rerun the analysis.

Lambert clarified that when computing the benefits, crash reduction/modification factors are considered and then noted it was strictly a safety benefit, not a capacity benefit.

Viger said he believed in the roundabout project done in the town center, but felt it may be the ‘latest and greatest’ thing.  He would like to see the results from the town center roundabouts before having roundabouts in other locations.

Gleason commented there were two concerns expressed; one being the lack of activity after areas were reviewed.  He recalled there were three levels of solutions; short, medium and long-term and noted that short-term improvements never happened.  He said the current proposals seemed to be a deviation from the previous reviews.  He believed the Old Gage Hill location to be more of a concern than Sherburne Road.  He said it was suggested that removing shrubbery and some modification to the store entrance be done.  He wanted to know if doing so would mitigate the risks and solve the problems.

Marshall replied that their process had changed from when they originally reviewed the areas.  At that time, they didn’t have a method to move projects from the road safety audit report to an actual project.  She said that process was developed this year.  She also said the concept being shown wouldn’t solve all the problems, but would reduce some of the sight distance issues at Old Gage Hill and Route 38 intersection.

When Gleason questioned if there were other measures that could be reviewed regarding the safety of the area, Lambert said one of the short-term remedies being reviewed is the speed limit.  However, Lambert felt with the vertical crest of the road, the more appropriate solution would be to have an advisory sign tied to a road condition.

Viger wanted to know how the short-term solutions brought forward could be addressed.  Zanes said when the road safety audit was originally created it was an opportunity for a number of people from different disciplines to get together and review the site.  They came together and made suggestions; no suggestion was considered a ‘bad idea.’  As a result, many of the suggestions made it into the report because they didn’t want to exclude anything.  Zanes believed the complication came from the misunderstanding that all the solutions would be implemented.  With regard to Gage Hill Road, Zanes said they had a fixed cost based on the number of accidents per year and explained how they arrived at solutions and the associated cost for them.

It was clear from the discussion that there was a level of frustration and some concern that items were being presented clearly.  Next, Viger questioned what information was in front of the selectmen and asked if they were real solutions or suggestions.  Zanes said the items on the list were the result of a brainstorming session.

Viger asked what selectmen could do to get the state to determine what could and should be done as the next step.  Zanes replied they could provide a response based on the road audit and give an explanation why options were reviewed.  Viger concluded by stating he felt selectmen should get the state’s recommendations.

Marshall said the information provided to the board was a fact sheet used during a NHDOT office meeting and the options posted were the state’s recommendations.

There was a discussion regarding the concepts for the Route 38/Old Gage Hill Road intersection.  When Gleason asked if the store on Route 38 was in agreement with the proposal to clear the ditch line vegetation and move utility poles, Marshall said they had not gone to the store because the access management was within the right-of-way and it would need to be negotiated.

When Gleason asked for confirmation that changing the road profile was a future action and not currently under consideration, Marshall answered they had not drawn a concept because the HSIP funds couldn’t be used for that concept.

Gowan said he was doubtful that the vegetation clearing would provide a significant improvement, but when he was in the field, he was convinced otherwise as saw there would be some benefit to that clearing because it would also include relocating telephone poles and removing a piece of ledge.  Doing so will help with the sight distance for cars on Old Gage Hill Road, but he noted that this option doesn’t solve the road crest problem.  However, Gowan felt that any improvement at the intersection was worth trying to implement.  He said improving the store traffic should be included.

Discussion next centered on the Sherburne Road and Mammoth Road intersection options.  The proposal qualifying for HSIP funds was the construction of median island on Sherburne Road with separate lanes for left and right turns; traffic signs will also be reviewed.

Selectman Bob Haverty recalled the suggestion to making the turn from Mammoth Road (heading south) onto Sherburne Road (turning right) more severe so vehicles would have to slow down to take a harder right turn onto Sherburne Road.  He commented that currently the corner is too open and vehicles are hitting the turn at speed, which decreases the timing for vehicles waiting on Sherburne Road to turn left onto Mammoth Road.  Haverty believed that theory was previously going to be tested, but didn’t see mention of such on the information provided.

Zanes noted this was something they could do without having a project because state personnel could place barrels to implement the theory and audit the results.  Marshall apologized because this suggestion had not been capsulized in the proposal.

Gowan said at the Sherburne intersection they observed vehicles had made their own turning lane to head south onto Mammoth Road, which was felt to have compacted the problem.  When he asked if the short-term recommendation of separating the lanes with a median island would reduce the room so there would be less likelihood of cars making their own lanes, Zanes said it would create more of a right turn lane ability and believed sight distance was a factor for using a median island.  He said the crash modification numbers say if traffic could be separate, a certain amount of safety improvement would be gained.  Zanes commented this was being presented as an alternative concept, but was not sure there would be a lot of confidence that it would provide a huge safety impact.  He said it could be one consideration, given it met the criteria for federal money.

When Gleason told the board they were being asked for their concurrence on the two recommendations made, Marshall agreed they would like to know if the board would like the two proposals to move forward into a project.  If not, she asked that selectmen state that fact.  Gowan recommended moving ahead with the two proposals because the pursuit of the other options seemed likely to be a multiyear process.

At that point, Lynde asked that the comment regarding ledge removal at the Old Gage Hill Road intersection be elaborated upon.  Zanes said looking south on Route 38 there were poles and a small ledge outcrop they would like to clear as much as they could for sight and safety purposes.  Lynde said because it was a terrible intersection, any improvement would be beneficial.  Lynde also commented that it was a shame the Sherburne Road intersection wasn’t scored for increased air pollution and wasted time from people sitting in traffic, but commented that he liked the idea of testing the intersection by placing the jersey barriers versus spending money prior to knowing an outcome.

Gleason asked selectmen if they wanted to give approval for the concepts to proceed.  He believed the proposal for Route 38 and Old Gage Hill Road was acceptable.  No objection was voiced.  However, with regard to Sherburne Road there seemed to be some concern relative to whether adequate research was done from the initial study.  Selectmen agreed to defer approval for that intersection, pending further review.