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Northampton’s laser warning system to help trucks avoid downtown bridge nearly in place

A sign with caution lights on Pleasant St. (Rt. 5) in Northampton, approaching Main St., warns of a low under pass. A much smaller yellow sign, at far left, closer to Main St. ahead, indicates that the low under pass (11 ft.) is to the right on eastbound Rt. 9. 
KEVIN GUTTING

A sign with caution lights on Pleasant St. (Rt. 5) in Northampton, approaching Main St., warns of a low under pass. A much smaller yellow sign, at far left, closer to Main St. ahead, indicates that the low under pass (11 ft.) is to the right on eastbound Rt. 9. KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

NORTHAMPTON — Transportation officials intend to flip the switch in the next few weeks on a long-anticipated laster-triggered warning system designed to help tractor-trailers drivers avoid a railroad bridge over Main Street downtown.

The state Department of Transportation, in cooperation with the city and the Regional Traveler Information Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has completed installation of detection lasers and wig-wag lights at Interstate 91’s exit 19 off ramp and on Pleasant Street downtown.

Plans call for installation of three more lasers, one on Main Street this week and on King and Bridge streets in the next week or two, said Laura Hanson, the city’s traffic engineer.

Extra wig-wag warnings will also go up on both sides of the bridge at the Bridge-Market and Main-Strong intersections, though those locations will not have lasers.

“We’re hoping to have everything installed by mid-December,” Hanson said.

The roughly $69,000 system, officially called an “overhead vehicle detection system,” works in two parts. The first is a laser beam that assesses the height of a vehicle. If a vehicle is above 11 feet tall, a signal is sent to a set of orange “wig-wag” lights located between 200 and 450 feet away. The lights, which begin to flash, are attached to bright yellow signs that warn drivers of the approaching low clearance.

Officials hope the effort will provide long-sought relief to Ward 3 residents, especially those on Lincoln and Day avenues. In the past decade, there have been 29 direct bridge strikes, according to figures from the Northampton Police Department and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. Police have helped drivers back up and turn around more than 103 times.

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