Discussion ongoing over controversial roundabout 

  • Traffic in both directions on North King Street (Rt. 5) in Northampton stops to make way for a tractor trailer negotiating the sharp right turn from Hatfield Street onto North King Street on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. A planned roundabout for the intersection would go through a site where artifacts estimated to be at least 8,000 years old were found.

  • The intersection of North King Street (Rt. 5), left, and Hatfield Street, right, in Northampton, looking south. Photographed on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. A planned roundabout for the intersection would go through a site where artifacts estimated to be at least 8,000 years old were found.

Staff Writer
Published: 2/18/2021 6:45:44 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The state Department of Transportation (MassDOT) on Wednesday night hosted a public information meeting for a project it says would improve safety on North King and Hatfield streets, but one that remains controversial because of its location over a Native American site.

The proposed construction would disrupt a site where over 500 Native American artifacts dating back at least 8,000 years were discovered in fall 2019. The project has drawn significant outcry from residents, including a petition to stop the construction, which currently has over 55,700 signatures. The Narragansett Indian Tribe has spoken out in favor of preserving and protecting the site, as well as the Nipmuc Nation of Massachusetts and the Elnu Abenaki tribe in Southern Vermont.

Proponents of the project, including the city of Northampton, have said the roundabout would address safety issues for cyclists and pedestrians.

At the Wednesday night meeting, several members of the state’s project team presented the roundabout plans, discussed proposed alternatives, and answered questions from the public.

Many spoke out against the project during a question-and-answer period, including attendee Eric Reuss, who urged the state “to accommodate Native American concerns” outside of the state’s standard guidelines for comment.

“If the tribes reach out to you, please listen,” Reuss said. “Or even better, reach out to them.”

He added, “Just because something is standard does not make it right.”

MassDOT archaeologist Jameson Harwood said that the state would “really prefer” the tribes to comment, but cannot force them to within the state’s time frame. The state received a response from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, and more recently, has started talking with the Narragansett tribe, he said. But many comments were after the MOA and data recovery program had already passed, Harwood said.

The city is not involved with the archaeological aspects of the project, according to Wayne Feiden, director of planning and sustainability for Northampton, but supports the roundabout as a means to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety in the area.

“We have a policy, as does MassDOT, that people should be comfortable walking and bicycling on the road in town,” Feiden told the Gazette, “and right now, North King Street is extremely unsafe.”

In a Functional Design report completed in 2013, MassDOT reviewed crash data at the site between 2007 and 2009. Three crashes occurred during this period, placing it at “below the average crash rate,” according to the report.

But the area remains “high risk” due to high traffic speeds, according to Feiden.

The report also stated that the intersection was found to be “experiencing significant traffic delays and vehicle queues as a result of the heavy traffic volumes from the Hatfield Street approach.”

Two proposed construction alternatives would have less of an impact on the archaeological sites, Feiden said, but the site would still be affected, and these plans would not as effectively mitigate safety hazards. Moving the location is not feasible due to a steeper hill grade at what would be the alternative site, he added.

The engineers have also looked at a no-build alternative, Feiden said, which does not affect the archaeological site but also does not impact crash rates.

City officials “trust the process” held in consultation with federal highway authorities, MassDOT, tribes and the Massachusetts Historical Commission, Feiden said.

Rochelle Prunty, general manager of the neighboring River Valley Co-Op, said that the co-op has been opposed to the project “before this historic site was even known,” and feels that the state has not adequately factored public comment into its plans.

“We objected informally long before the design process had come along,” she added. “We objected formally when it was at 25%, and our neighbors also objected to this project and had serious concerns. And now we’ve heard how Native American groups lost their chance … because they spoke up too late.”

Prunty added, “It just makes me wonder, when do you need to comment to actually get your comments seriously considered and have them taken into consideration?”

Bryan Cordeiro, who works on the project team as part of MassDOT Environmental Services, said that the state was holding the Wednesday night meeting “because we want to continue to hear the comments from the public.”

Projects throughout the state draw concerns about access to business, he added.

The construction would likely take place over the course of three years, according to project designer Alex Fagnand, and “generally speaking … the most disruptive work will probably be concentrated down to a year, year-and-a-half type window.”

The state will continue to collect public comment submissions until March 8, which can be filed through an online public involvement platform. Also in March, the Environmental Monitor will publish a revised Environmental Notification Form filed with the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA).

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.
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