Highway Engineers Present Plans for I-91 Exit 19
On Monday night, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation held a public session regarding their controversial plans to expand exit 19 off of Interstate 91 in Northampton.
The meeting, which lasted nearly three hours, featured planners and engineers with the Missouri-based TranSystems, who presented the 12 concepts currently being considered by MassDOT. The most invasive – concept 17 – would feature two third-story flyover ramps from the Coolidge Bridge over Bridge and Damon Roads to the south and north on i-91 at a cost of $38 million. At the other end of the spectrum, planners said that a “no-build” option combined with Traffic Demand Management (TDM) measures is “still on the table.”
Interchange 19 currently provides a northbound exit and a south-bound entrance but does not provide a south-bound exit or a north-bound entrance. (Exits 18 and 20 also serve Northampton – exit 18 to the south on Rt. 5 is fully-directional, and exit 20 provides a a north-bound on-ramp and a south-bound off-ramp at the head of King Street.)
In 2004 the Connecticut River Crossing Transportation Study (download large pdf), conducted by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission recommended a fully-directional interchange at exit 19 – the controversial plan known as “Concept 15.”
In the wake of a series of public meetings where citizens familiar with local conditions criticized data used in the study, state project planners retained Maureen Chlebek, a traffic engineer with McMahon Associates, to take new traffic counts and generate accurate driver behavior data for the study area. The Project Advisory Committee (PAC) was reconstituted with new members – some from the Ward 3 neighborhood and one, Smith College professor James Lowenthal, representing the Pioneer Valley chapter of MassBike.
“We are taking the study one step further,” said TranSystems engineer Gary J. Bua, Project Manager for the I-91 Exit 19 Interchange Study.
Bua described the goal of the Monday night meeting as a means for advancing the project “so that we are getting input from the community and PAC [Project Advisory Committee] representatives.” Bua presented an “impact matrix” which evaluates the pros and cons of each of the twelve concepts. Described as a “Consumer Reports-style” analysis, benefits were indicated with a green symbol, and problem areas with a red symbol.
“While 12 alternatives may seem like a lot to digest, this is just our effort to remain transparent,” said TranSystem’s Marcy Miller, public outreach coordinator for the project.
Ward 3 resident Frank Werbinski, speaking for the PAC, said that the chosen concept should minimize land taking, keep close to the current footprint, create safe conditions for pedestrians and cyclists, provide traffic calming, not destroy agricultural land, and bring as little cost and disruption to the community as possible. If anything is to be built, the PAC would recommend concept 12 – involving a single roundabout at Bridge and Damon Road – or concept 13, which merely widens and realigns existing ramps without any significant property takings, said Werbinksi.
“Simple things like installing a light can help with traffic congestion,” said Werbinski, referencing the recent addition of a traffic signal at the intersection of Route 9 and Damon Road. “I feel improvements can be made without substantial additions,” he said.
Still, traffic engineers said that a solution is needed. “When intersections operate so poorly that traffic backs up on to the interstate, it is obviously a huge safety concern,” she said. Chlebek also said that frequent congestion of an intersection can lead to higher crash data and clogging of secondary and tertiary routes. “Using congestion as a traffic calming measure is not good practice,” she said.
Planners are projecting a 1% yearly increase in vehicular traffic through 2034 in the study area. “We’re looking at a five-year build-out, we project another twenty years from there,” said Chlebek.
Of the designs, four include at least one roundabout, which is similar to a rotary but smaller, and an additional four include at least one three-story “flyover” overpass. Marvin Ward of Williamsburg, a member of MassBike, said that he is aesthetically opposed to an additional overpass in the interchange 19 area.
Ward also expressed his concern for the effect a flyover entrance ramp would have on the Norwottuck Rail Trail, an 11-mile recreational and commuter path linking Northampton, Hadley and Amherst. Other recreational sites near the interchange include the Elwell Recreation area, Sheldon Field and University of Massachusetts crew structures.
“I don’t think the need is that great,” Ward said before the meeting.
Other members of the public don’t see a need to improve the intersection at all. “One of the alternatives is to do nothing, and I so strongly support that,” said Northampton resident Susan Lantz. Lantz also said that the construction costs, which could run as high as $38 million, could be used to better public transportation. Transportation planners should take the concepts of “peak oil” into consideration when projecting future conditions, said Lantz, who received a round of applause from members of the audience when she finished speaking.
Bua said Monday that he hoped feedback from the public would allow MassDOT and TranSystems employees to identify three or four top designs, and move ahead from there. “We’re making sure that we’re not just looking at the interchange, but how that would affect other interchanges, local roads, Route 9, and of course King street,” he said.
The public is encouraged to give feedback about the interchange 19 project, and can do so by logging on to http://www.mass.gov/massdot/interchange19, or by sending an email to Bao Lang, of MassDOT directly, at Bao.Lang@state.ma.us.