Town, state at odds over how to improve intersection
Hope — Town officials have met several times recently with representatives of the state in an effort to address safety concerns at the intersection of Harts Mill Road and Route 17, also known as Main Street.
After residents living near Pushaw's Trading Post asked Brian Powers, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, to try to do something about the speed of cars traveling through South Hope on Route 17, he met with state Sen. Ed Mazurek, D-Rockland. Besides serving as senator for most of Knox County, Mazurek is also chairman of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation.
Mazurek and Powers met at Pushaw's Oct. 2, along with several Hope residents. According to Powers, Mazurek summed up the problem with the 40-mile-an-hour speed limit on that stretch of Route 17:
“If there's a 40-mile-an-hour sign, people are going to go 50-plus. That's just what people do.”
A second issue is that the configuration of the Harts Mill Road intersection is confusing, town officials said. A small town green, containing a veterans' memorial and flagpole, divides the main outlet onto Route 17 from a side leg closer to South Hope Fire Station, which also comes out onto the state highway, forming a “Y.” Neither side has a yield sign for cars entering Harts Mill Road. So it is possible for two cars to turn into the road simultaneously, with neither one having a clear right of way. Cars can also turn out of both legs to go either direction on Route 17.
And traffic on Harts Mill has increased, Powers said, as it has evolved from a residential street into a connector for people on their way to Union and Warren.
Mazurek was sympathetic, Powers said, and agreed to see what he could do to help.
One thing that may be needed, according to his conversations with Department of Transportation (DOT) staff, is a traffic study, Powers said. Since the season for such studies is over, it would have to wait until next year.
Powers said he would like to see the intersection reconfigured to make it less confusing, and the speed limit in the 40-mile-an-hour zone lowered to 35. He added he had seen cars going west on Route 17 veer into Pushaw's parking lot to go around a vehicle waiting to turn left onto Harts Mill Road. The store parking lot is very close to the road by current standards, he said, and actually lies partly in the state's right of way.
“It's amazing we haven't had more problems there,” he said.
He recalled a crash within the last two or three years which resulted in one person's death. A review of the Courier Publications archive yielded stories on two serious crashes within the last three years, one of them at the end of May this year (see stories here and here).
In a subsequent meeting at the intersection attended by Powers, Town Administrator Jon Duke, Road Commissioner John Monroe and DOT Regional Traffic Engineer David Allen, Powers said he was was frustrated by what he heard. Allen “didn't feel that lowering the speed limit would help,” Powers said, and in fact, indicated that a traffic study might show that the present 40-mile-an-hour speed limit should be raised.
Allen noted that three years ago DOT had a plan and $30,000 in funding to reconfigure the intersection from a “Y” into a “T” to alleviate the confusion there (see related story). Selectmen, upon receiving a petition from residents, declined to consider DOTs plan at the time.
Regarding the speed limit, Allen explained more is involved than just changing the signs. When DOT looks at changing a speed limit, he said, it does a radar study to determine the speed that 85 percent of drivers are at or below, and the 10 mile per hour range where most vehicles are traveling. In addition, the number of intersections, driveways and businesses along the relevant stretch of road are counted and the number of crashes in the previous three years, both the total number of crashes and those that occurred at driveways and intersections are researched.
Allen said studies have shown the 85th percentile speed is where a driver is least likely to be involved in a crash, and those going 10 or more miles an hour above or below that speed are at significantly more risk. He stressed traffic engineers want to keep drivers moving at approximately the same pace. So if the speed limit near the Harts Mill Road, Route 17 intersection were lowered to 35 tomorrow, he said, some people would obey it and many others would not, increasing the difference between the fastest drivers and the slowest and potentially increasing the risk of a crash.
In order to slow the traffic along a stretch of road, Allen said, it is necessary to change “the feel of the road” – the psychological impression of how fast it is safe to drive – which is affected by such factors as the presence of sidewalks, the width of travel lanes and shoulders, and the number of driveways and businesses. To change the feel of the section of Route 17 through South Hope so as to calm traffic, Allen said, could cost as much as $100,000.
For his part, Powers thinks it will take more serious crashes before the state will act to slow traffic at the intersection. He may be right. Allen said he did not believe there was a demonstrated crash record there. He explained that DOT defines a “high-crash location” as one that has more crashes per year than the average for intersections throughout the state that are similar configured, and which have at least eight crashes over the most recent three years.