Traffic Signal Barely Gets Green Light

July 26, 2013
 
by Barbara O’Brien

Windham Selectmen were deeply divided on the issue of whether or not to ask New Hampshire Department of Transportation (DOT) officials to change their plans and leave a full-function traffic signal at the intersection of Range Road and Route 111.  The existing light was put in as part of the Route 93 reconstruction project and was supposed to be temporary.  A  decade old Board of Selectmen asked that the light be removed once construction was completed.

Those plans began to draw controversy, however, a few months ago, when area business owners began asking town officials what could be done to retain the light at its present location on a permanent basis.  As a result, public input sessions were held, as well as workshops with DOT officials.  Some local businesses and residents, as well, cited concerns over safety at that intersection should the traffic signal be removed, as well as negative effects on area businesses.  Many of these businesses were not in existence when the original plan was drawn up in 2002.

What was expected to be the final forum on the topic took place on July 22.  While the meeting was open to the general public, no public input was permitted.  Selectmen’s chairman Phil LoChiatto said it was his opinion that there had already been sufficient opportunity for the public to express its ideas and feelings on the subject.

Peter Stamnas of the NHDOT said his purpose in attending the July 22 meeting was to receive a written recommendation from the Windham Board of Selectmen regarding the retention or removal of the Range Road traffic signal.  Stamnas said the DOT is willing to listen to town officials, but it was his contention that the “temporary” light did not need to become a permanent fixture.

As currently planned, Stamnas said, there will be six traffic signals, all relatively equally spaced, between the Route 93 on and off ramps (Exit 3) and Route 28.  Stamnas said he believes this will be sufficient to keep traffic flowing and still allow fairly easy access to the businesses along this stretch.  If the temporary light were left in place, there would be seven traffic signals within 7,000 feet, a situation which could cause congestion, he said.  The downside of leaving the light is that it would make that portion of the corridor less efficient, there would be one more traffic signal to be maintained and it would cause an interruption in the flow of traffic, Stamnas said.  The “temporary signal is not needed for the majority of the day,” Stamnas explained based on existing traffic patterns.

Christi St. Laurent, chairman of the Windham Planning Board, presented a letter to the selectmen, stating that the vast majority of the seven-member board wants the existing light at Route 111 and Range Road to be retained.  “The removal of the light would cause unnecessary detriment to the existing businesses within close proximity to this intersection,” the letter stated.

Stamnas said DOT officials are “trying as best as they can to address as many concerns as possible,” but it would be impossible to fix everyone’s issues.  “There has already been a huge investment made in this corridor and we want it to be as efficient as possible,” Stamnas said.

Under the existing State plan, the temporary light at Range Road was expected to stay in place until sometime in 2015, at which point it is believed the Exit 3 portion of the Route 93 project will be finished.

Selectman Al Letizio, Jr. said he supports the plan as proposed by the DOT to remove the traffic signal when the construction work is completed.  Otherwise, Letizio said, “There will be too much traffic congestion.”  Letizio also said he is now opposed to constructing any roundabouts in that area because of what he called “the exorbitant cost” and also a lack of available space.

Selectman Ross McLeod said he wants the traffic signal to remain in place for the time being, and have selectmen revisit the issue down the road if available commercial property off of Delahunty Drive is developed and a new traffic signal is required at that intersection.  “I’m not in favor of removing the traffic signal under current conditions,” McLeod said.  “Who knows what will take place in that area in the future.”

LoChiatto said he was originally in support of keeping the light, but after learning of additional information had changed his mind.  “The situation has been brought into better perspective,” LoChiatto added.  LoChiatto said he now believes that leaving the traffic signal in place permanently would only create traffic congestion.  “It would push Windham closer to looking like Salem, rather than the vision of a rural oasis,” he commented.  “The State’s plan is the right plan,” LoChiatto said.

Selectman Kathleen DiFruscia said she would like to see the traffic light stay for now, and then reassess the situation as the area is developed.  “I’d like to see how it plays out,” she said.

Selectman Roger Hohenberger was concerned that there are just too many “what ifs” at this point; such as where the new park ‘n ride will be located, whether the Gateway District will be developed and when and what will actually happen with the construction of the new 111A bypass.  Hohenberger also noted that he doesn’t want Windham to wind up looking like Salem’s Route 28.  “I’m dead-set against any additional lights along that stretch, that’s one thing for sure,” Hohenberger said.

Attempts to bring selectmen to a consensus was not a pretty process and involved nearly two hours of wrangling and even veiled ridicule at times.  It wasn’t until several motions had failed to gain sufficient support that the majority of selectmen finally agreed to submit a letter to the NHDOT asking that the traffic signal stay where it is on a permanent basis.

The first motion was to support the plan as presented by the State DOT and have the light removed at the completion of the project.  That motion failed by a vote of 3 to 2.  Hohenberger, McLeod and DiFruscia voted against this motion.  Only LoChiatto and Letizio voted in favor of it.  The second motion was to keep the traffic light in place then revisit the status in the future, as needed, based on area development.  The second motion failed by a vote of 3 to 2.  Hohenberger, LoChiatto and Letizio voted against the motion, while McLeod and DiFruscia were the only two board members to vote in favor of it.

A third motion, made by Selectman Hohenberger, asked that a traffic light not be placed at the future Route 111A intersection.  Hohenberger was the only board member who voted in favor of his motion.

Hohenberger then suggested that the board of selectmen take no action on the issue until a future, yet to be determined date; to which Stamnas responded, “Then the DOT will proceed with the plan” as proposed and remove the traffic signal on Range Road during 2015, Stamnas said.  “We’re moving ahead!”  Hohenberger said that he felt Windham was being “bullied” by the DOT.

Selectman DiFruscia then suggested that another public input session be held before selectmen reached a final decision on retaining or removing the traffic signal.  “I want to be very certain that we do the right thing,” she said.  DiFruscia suggestion failed to gain enough support, however.  “A decision needs to be made tonight,” LoChiatto said.

Fin, on a motion by Selectman McLeod, to keep the traffic signal at Range Road, with no other contingencies, passed muster by a vote of 3 to 2.  Voting in favor were McLeod, DiFruscia and Hohenberger, although it was obvious that this was a very difficult decision for Selectman Hohenberger.  His affirmative vote came only after a significant delay in the proceedings.  The motion to keep the light in place was opposed by Selectmen LoChiatto and Letizio.

After listening to the board’s final decision to write a letter to the DOT asking that the traffic signal at Range Road be retained, Stamnas said simply, “We’ll take it under consideration.”