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Highway crews struggle to keep up with road fixes

Michael Howe had no time to react.

Back in February, at the intersection of Westhampton (Route 66) and Loudville roads in Northampton, Howe, 18, got into a car accident when a Chesterfield woman pulled her car into the intersection, apparently without seeing Howe.

The woman was cited by police for failure to use care in starting, but Howe doesn’t necessarily blame her for the crash, which caused more than $1,000 in property damage.

The intersection, he says, is just “bad.”

“The road kind of turns before you hit the intersection,” said Howe, a recent Northampton High School graduate. “Maybe she didn’t see us. ... It’s kind of blind for them there.”



View 2010 Most Dangerous Intersections in a larger map

There are many intersections and streets in Hampshire County that could be improved — the more than 2,600 accidents that occurred in 2010 in the county suggest that. But which dangerous roadways get addressed is a complicated decision that takes into account the availability of funding, state, private and utility road work schedules, public support and the ability to secure the right permits, sometimes more so than crashes.

“I can’t really say it’s done the same every time,” said Guilford Mooring, head of the Department of Public Works in Amherst, about how road projects are prioritized. “It all comes down to different things like the condition of the roads, not the number of accidents, but the complaints about the roads, whether we have to do a lot of sewer and water work. We try to do that before we pave a road.

“We have to think of everything, coordinate with everyone,” Mooring continued. “Sometimes a project gets done solely because someone else is trying to do something in the area.”

Shrinking budgets and roads that are deteriorating further with each passing year have made prioritizing road projects increasingly difficult in Massachusetts. In short, it’s hard to keep up with maintenance, let alone improve safety.

A 2011 study by a Washington advocacy group, Smart Growth America, found that Massachusetts would have to spend $517 million a year to maintain road quality, but the average annual spending is about $293 million. On a local scale, Joe Pipczynski, Easthampton’s DPW director, estimates the city should repave 8 miles of city street every year to maintain good condition, but he says the city is lucky if half a mile is repaved each year. Most communities keep a running log of road conditions. In Northampton, roads are surveyed every four years. The information is entered into a database that ranks the streets based on their condition. Easthampton and Amherst have similar records.

“We’re not even running to catch up,” Pipczynski said. “This is a statewide issue, not just an Easthampton problem. You drive anywhere in the Valley and the roads are all the same.”

What gets done

Public support can be an effective motivator to get a project moving.

In Northampton, for instance, the city hired a consultant to study traffic at the downtown intersection of Main, Pleasant, Bridge and King streets following people’s reaction to a May motor vehicle accident that fatally injured bicyclist Harry Delmolino, 18, of Hadley.

“This all stemmed from that fatality, people wanted us to look at this,” said Laura Hanson, traffic engineer for the city of Northampton. The city is now reviewing whether to coordinate two left-turn signals at the intersection to improve traffic flow and safety.

And, prompted by a citizen petition signed by 200 residents, the city recently installed raised crosswalks by Jackson Street School to enhance safety, particularly for students walking to and from school.

Public comment, Hanson said, is a key-component to people’s satisfaction with a completed project.

“More public process, meetings, more transparency ... means more time and money, but in the long run people are more happy with the project because they have a voice in it,” said Hanson. She added that the city takes a “complete street approach” to improvements, which means Northampton officials consider how road changes will affect motorists as well as pedestrians, bicyclists and public transportation.

Popular opinion, however, can’t accomplish anything without money.

There are several sources that fund road work. Those funded by a municipality typically use Chapter 90 money, a state reimbursement program specifically set up for roadwork. Municipalities can also vote to bond for projects. Amherst voters recently approved borrowing $4.5 million to repave roads. Hanson said Northampton may consider bonding for pavement work in the future. “There’s just too long a backlog,” she said.

Road projects can also be funded by private people or businesses such as when Smith College in Northampton paid $250,000 to raise and upgrade Elm Street crosswalks by the campus.

Large-scale projects usually go through the state Transportation Improvement Program or TIP , a federally funded source administered by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation working with 13 metropolitan planning organizations (the local one is the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission). Getting on that list can take years.

A plan to improve traffic flow and safety at the Damon Road/King Street intersection in Northampton has been in the works since 1998, Hanson noted. Contributing to the long planning period was the state’s decision to reconstruct the Interstate 91 Exit 19 ramp at this intersection. The projects will need to be coordinated.

The first step to getting a project into the TIP is capturing a local planning group’s attention. These planning agencies have committees of local town administrators and state and regional highway authorities charged with creating a list of potential road projects that meet TIP standards. In the Pioneer Valley, 43 communities vie to get their projects on the annual TIP list.

Once a project is selected by the committee for submission to the state, committee members work with the state’s Joint Transportation Committee to draft a project proposal. After a lot of back and forth, a final version of the proposal is prepared and public hearings are scheduled. Comments are addressed and a new draft of the proposal is done. The committee votes on the project and, if approved, the proposal is sent to the DOT for consideration. MassDOT can require changes to the plan before it is accepted into TIP.

“It’s not always a simple fix,” Pipczynski said of the roadwork process. “It’s not something like, if we had the money we could just go out and fix the roads. Sometimes you have to fight the agencies first.”

Motor vehicle accidents do play some role in roadwork prioritization. DPWs are notified by police departments if a stretch of road or intersection becomes a hot spot for crashes. Department heads are also fed information by city engineers and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, which every five years or so compiles a list of the worst intersections in the Valley. An updated list is due out by the end of October.

“Sometimes circumstances promote change at an intersection,” Hanson said.

While street laws, car safety features and road design best practices have evolved to make being on the streets safer, ultimately, these improvements are no guarantee of security.

Bad driving behavior is a major contributor to accidents, said Henry Jasny, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in Washington. This “bad behavior” includes not wearing seat belts, engaging in distractions like texting while driving, not checking mirrors and not looking before entering an intersection, he said. Driver education and the enforcement of highway safety laws are the best ways to correct poor driving habits, Jasny said.

“The only thing that hasn’t improved too much is the driver,” he said. “Without education and laws, there is a limit on what redesign can do.”

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