Daily Hampshire Gazette - Established 1786
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Editorial: Drivers pay price for inadequate I-91 road work notices

There’s nothing more aggravating than leaving a long day at work, jumping into one’s car and going nowhere. That’s how many Valley commuters felt last week when road work on Interstate 91 by a Massachusetts Department of Transportation contractor shut down highway lanes and brought traffic to a crawl in several surrounding cities and towns, most notably in Northampton, Hadley and Easthampton, at rush hour.

Highway infrastructure needs to be maintained and repaired, a fact the public generally accepts and understands. However, when short-term projects pop up unexpectedly during peak travel hours, the state’s transportation agency needs to do a better job communicating about that work. More importantly, it must do so before and not after work commences.

Last week’s traffic fiasco resembled a similar episode in late August when unannounced survey work by MassDOT backed up traffic for miles on Interstate 91 south from Northampton to Holyoke.

In that case, traffic tie-ups were so bad on the first day of work that survey crews abandoned the project around midday to get traffic flowing again. It took some motorists 45 minutes to an hour to get from Hadley to Holyoke during the height of the jam — about the time it takes to get from Northampton to Worcester in normal conditions.

After learning of the traffic delays from motorists, the Gazette in that case also contacted state highway officials, which brought a too-little, too-late explanation about the highway work. At the time, MassDOT said it planned to monitor the congestion closely and adjust the survey schedule to lessen the impact on travelers.

As for last week, state highway officials say the contractor working on road resurfacing along a six-mile stretch of I-91 put out “variable message boards” in the south and north lanes, first Nov. 27 and then again Dec. 3, to alert drivers that work would begin during the day Dec. 10.

In our view, this isn’t good enough in a time when technology provides a bounty of tools for easier and more rapid communications. MassDOT already employs a 511 traveler information system and what it describes as “the world’s most sophisticated technologies to bring users real-time current and predictive traffic conditions.” But one has to wonder how effective this system is when jack-in-the-box road projects emerge. Real time is one thing, but advance information and time for travelers to plan is another.

Life was supposed to get better, we reported four years ago, when local and state officials gathered in Northampton to announce the installation of a $30.7 million fiber-optic cable along sections of I-91 and I-291. This cable was to be the backbone of an “intelligent transportation system” that was to debut in 2010, we were told, a project designed to provide real-time traffic information along 58 miles of highway in the region, including all but the northernmost four miles of I-91 in Massachusetts.

State officials say the system is still in the works and has yet to be operational north of Springfield. It is two years late — and counting.

Had more Valley commuters and motorists known about what MassDOT was up to on I-91, and when, the traffic problems in August as well as last week would have been less severe. More commuters would have taken alternative routes or avoided trips at rush hour. Instead, highway ramps and major access roads around I-91 in the Northampton area were backed up or at a standstill for hours. The variable signs weren’t effective. More needs to be done.

We all know that rebuilding highway systems can be complicated. But after all these years, and until the promised high-tech alert system arrives, getting the message out shouldn’t be that hard.

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