MAP: Improvements planned for Academy of Music intersection in Northampton

Last modified: Wednesday, February 05, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — The city is starting a long-term project to improve safety and reduce congestion at the downtown intersection near the Academy of Music, a spot that has vexed transportation officials for years.

A traffic consulting firm hired by the city to draw up preliminary designs for the intersection of State, Main, South and Elm streets is presenting a combination of short- and long-range ideas for safer and easier vehicle and pedestrian crossings, said Wayne Feiden, director of the city’s Office of Planning and Sustainability.

“The main goal is make it safer for pedestrians and bicycles, narrow the road profile, and improve the number of cars that can move through there,” Feiden said.

Representatives from Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, a Boston firm that has been studying the Academy intersection for some time, is presenting three concepts to address many of the decades-old problems at the intersection. All of the concepts would convert the intersection into a smaller, more traditional design, make several improvements along New South and Elm streets, and install new traffic islands designed to allow vehicles to make right turns on red lights.

Feiden said upgrades will need to be done in phases because of financing, with low-cost solutions by the Department of Public Works occurring as soon as next spring. More expensive work would need to wait until the city can secure state or federal funding, which could take years, Feiden said.

‘Frustrating intersection’

Ward 3 City Councilor Owen Freeman-Daniels, chairman of the Transportation and Parking Commission, said the plan provides a solid road map for improving the intersection and is much better for pedestrians than a roundabout that has been proposed in past studies.

“That is a very frustrating intersection,” Freeman-Daniels said. “The more we can get it so that drivers are satisfied and pedestrians can cross safely, is a win-win.”

Much of the short-term work will focus on New South Street, especially the northbound lanes from a dangerous crosswalk behind the Academy of Music to the intersection.

A year ago, the city made a series of temporary safety improvements to the crosswalk after a man was struck while crossing the busy street and later died. Those improvements included installing orange barrels near the crosswalk in the northbound lane of New South Street to prevent vehicles from passing on the right and removing one parking space next to the crosswalk in the southbound lane. The city also considered installation of a “rapid-flash” pedestrian beacon, but that fix has not moved forward pending the intersection improvement study.

Feiden said the temporary fixes have mostly solved the safety issue for pedestrians, but in the process created a backup of traffic along New South, especially during heavy commute times. To address this issue, the Nelson/Nygaard plan calls for adding a new left-turn lane on New South Street as vehicles approach the main intersection. There are now two lanes — one that drivers use to either turn left onto Elm Street or go straight onto State Street and the other which allows a right turn onto Main Street.

In addition to moving vehicles more quickly through the intersection, the three-lane proposal also would provide extra room for more vehicles to stop closer to the intersection. That plan also would allow the city to replace the orange barrels at the New South crosswalk with a permanent curb to keep that section of the road at one lane as it approaches the intersection, Feiden said.

Feiden said these fixes could be in place by next spring. Nelson\Nygaard also made many other suggestions for improvements that are long-term and will have to wait for future funding. Among them are:

∎ Eliminating the intersection’s diagonal crosswalk that stretches from the Edwards Church to the D.A. Sullivan building and replacing it with a crosswalk across Elm Street from D.A. Sullivan to the closed St. Mary of the Assumption Church. That would create a more traditional “box-like” intersection rather than having a crosswalk that goes through the middle of the street.

∎ Tightening up the intersection by moving traffic lights and crosswalks closer together so that drivers do not stop so far away from the lights and pedestrians have a shorter distance to cross the street. “It will almost feel like a normal intersection,” Feiden said.

∎ Extending a concrete island on Elm Street farther up the hill to make it feel more like an “honest left-hand turn” for vehicles turning onto West Street, Feiden said. Currently, many drivers making the turn from Elm onto West see a green signal and do not realize that they are crossing a lane of traffic to make the turn, he added.

∎ Enlarging an existing traffic island where New South Street meets Main Street in front of the Academy of Music, and constructing two new islands where New South meets Elm Street in front of the D.A. Sullivan building and at the southeast corner of Elm and West streets in front of the former Baptist Church. Crosswalks approaching all three islands would be raised to provide better visibility for both drivers and pedestrians.

Feiden said the islands would create clear “slip lanes” for drivers who want to turn right without waiting for a green light, as long as they yield to pedestrians first.

“What we’re saying is, don’t worry about the signal here,” said Feiden, equating the concept to roundabouts that are designed to move traffic through an intersection without vehicles having to stop.

Nelson\Nygaard has worked on several projects for the city including studying ways to improve traffic along Main and King streets downtown.

Congestion at the Academy of Music intersection has been an issue for years. In the 1980s, a traffic consultant suggested that the city consider making some downtown streets, including State Street, one way to reduce congestion at that intersection. The consultant at the time also suggested a one-lane “parkway” with pedestrian access along an old railroad bed between West and South streets. The street would be one way, carrying cars toward South Street and ending up behind the Round House lot.