BRATTLEBORO — Since the advent of the horseless carriage, traffic flow in downtown Brattleboro has been problematic and one study after another has been conducted to determine how best to keep cars and trucks moving along Main Street.
Most recently, Van Kacoyannakis, of Milone & McBroom of Springfield, Mass., took a look at the efficiency of the traffic lights that have been in operation since 2009. Kcoyannakis was on the original design team, so it made sense to have him come back to town and see how things have been rolling along, said Steve Barrett, director of Brattleboro's Department of Public Works. "We hired him to revisit the scene to make sure the system is working efficiently."
At Tuesday's Selectboard meeting, Kacoyannakis rendered his verdict.
"We can make minor tweaks to provide an overall better level of service," he said, "but the lights will pretty much operate the same as now."
Kacoyannakis's analysis followed on the heels of observations that, during construction of sidewalks in downtown, when the traffic lights on Main Street were switched to flashing yellow and on the feeder streets to flashing red, traffic seemed to flow smoother than during their regular cycles.
"Vehicle drivers felt the system worked more efficiently," said Barrett, "but pedestrians felt is was more dangerous."
Because the lights were set to flashing, there was no dedicated time for pedestrians to cross the street.
An analysis was also needed, added Barrett, because traffic flow has changed since 2009, mainly because of cars coming and going into the parking lot of the new Brattleboro Food Co-op.
Kacoyannakis, told the members of the board that despite the perception that not much has changed at the intersection of Route 119, Route 142 and Route 5, also known as Malfunction Junction, since the installation of lights, the intersection has improved, especially for pedestrians, who were at the mercy of their own judgment to attempt a crossing. While the traffic signals make it safer for pedestrians, it also breaks up the flow of traffic, he said.
"Pedestrians cross at pretty much every cycle, and in a coordinated system like this, it's breaking up the flow of traffic from south to north along the rotary." He said that exclusive pedestrian phases, in which all traffic stops at an intersection to allow walkers to cross, are not optimal for a streetscape such as in downtown Brattleboro, "With the parking and the storefronts, it's more advantageous to protect pedestrians rather than worrying about giving traffic a constant green."
Barrett said designating exclusive times for pedestrians to cross Main Street and the side streets was a conscious decision the town made six years ago. The town had the option of not installing crossing buttons at all and programming the system to stop traffic at certain designated times. Kacoyannakis said not only would this force pedestrians to wait longer to cross the street, but stopping all the traffic along Main Street at once would make traffic flow even worse. The intersection of Route 119, Route 142 and Route 5 is such a long crossing that it would delay traffic at the other downtown intersections, he said.
The designers also looked at concurrent pedestrian phasing, which allows pedestrians to cross a side street when Main Street has a green light or cross Main Street when a side street has a green light.
"Concurrent phasing would be safe at the three-legged intersections," said Kacoyannakis, but not at Malfunction Junction because of the sight lines. "Vehicles have a lot more speed and drivers don't expect to see pedestrians cross at that time; it's not the safest option."
"At this point, the recommendation is to leave the exclusive pedestrian phasing without any changes?" asked Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein. Both Kacoyannakis and Barrett affirmed Gartenstein's statement.
Selectboard Vice-Chairwoman Kate O'Connor noted that despite the traffic signals and pedestrian crossing lights, people continue to jaywalk and drivers continue to jam "the box" at intersections. Those are factors you can't really control, said Kacoyannakis, adding another factor you can't control is the behavior of drivers when the lights are set to flashing.
"Drivers typically use every gap possible and traffic tends to flow decently. The problem is the people on the side streets, their sense of caution goes away. It gives them a false sense of security to the point where the side street driver thinks the artery has a flashing red also. Sometimes not all the drivers are following the rules."
Flashing lights also make it a problem for pedestrians to cross the street and you lose the ADA capabilities that go along with exclusive pedestrian phasing. Kacoyannakis said he did not recommend switching the lights to flashing during regular traffic periods, and even from midnight to 6 a.m.
Kacoyannakis said the town could look at installing adaptive software to adjust to daily conditions, but such software can cost up to $250,000 and requires a technician on staff to maintain. He said it didn't make much financial sense to alter the system that way.
Town Manager Peter Elwell noted the traffic situation at Malfunction Junction will likely improve when the state of New Hampshire builds a bridge to replace the two bridges that connect Brattleboro with Hinsdale. That project, which is expected to begin in 2017, would connect the two towns just south of the Marlboro College Graduate Center on Route 142, thereby eliminating Bridge Street traffic into the intersection.
"Except for minor tweaking," said Gartenstein, "essentially the conclusion is the system isn't working so bad and we are advised to stay the court."
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.