CHESTERFIELD, N.H. — Following another serious crash on Route 9 in Chesterfield on Sunday, Duane Chickering, the town's police chief, is urging the state to do something now to make the road safer.
"Just stripe this thing and make the change," he said, referring to the fact the state is in the process of repaving and restriping Route 9 from the Connecticut River to Friedsam Road, where Sunday's crash happened.
In February, the town's Board of Selectmen wrote a letter to the New Hampshire Department of Transportation and asked, with paving on the horizon, that the eastbound passing lane just before the intersection of Route 9 and Route 63 be eliminated and be replaced with a left-turn lane, which would include turning onto Friedsam. Instead, the state plans to install this summer "an advanced intersection warning system" to minimize collisions at the intersection. The warning system consists of flashing signs on Route 9 to let drivers know that cars are waiting on Route 63 to enter or cross the state highway. This is not doing enough for safety, the board wrote in its letter.
"We see that the present use is for faster vehicle speeds and a race to the top," wrote Jon McKeon, who was then the chairman of the board. "This race sometimes carries all the way over the hill and down the descending side towards the intersection of Route 63."
On May 9, the board sent another letter to the state.
"What we have here is a clear and present danger," the board wrote in its May 9 letter. "Accidents which have occurred at this site [Friedsam and Route 9] are exacerbated by the increased speed at the end of the passing lane and as a result are generally catastrophic. In fact, an argument can be made that just removing the passing lane in this inherently unsafe section of roadway would be a huge improvement."
"It is sad to say the prognostications of our board have been brought to light in this latest collision on Route 9," wrote Jeanny Aldrich, current board chairwoman, in an email to the Reformer. "This lane needs to be removed. The state is repaving currently and this is an opportunity to correct this deadly part of Route 9. Maybe this tragic accident will be the evidence the state needs to correct their poor decisions."
Chickering said he hears every day from people about how their lives are affected by the lack of response from the state.
"They're taking their lives into their own hands having to make a left turn," he said. "It's baffling. Why can't they just restripe this and make it safer? We don't want to see anybody else get hurt."
On Sunday, Linda Davis, 72, and Robert Davis, 73, of Winchester, N.H., were at the end of the passing lane leading up to Route 63 waiting to make a left turn on to Friedsam Road when they were struck from behind by a vehicle being driven by Katie Greene, 30, of Bennington, Vt. The Davises were transported to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital for treatment of non-life-threatening injuries. Greene, however, was airlifted in critical condition to UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Mass. A vehicle being driven by Katherine Cummings, 61, of Spofford, N.H., was also struck by Greene's vehicle. Cummings was released at the scene with no reported injuries.
Chickering said he's been seeing accidents like this going on 20 years and it's time for the state to take the concerns of residents and travelers seriously.
"I'm upset that changes are not occurring," he said. "Especially now, with the road under construction."
"The Department of Transportation has been working closely with the town since the winter regarding this corridor," wrote Eileen Meaney, chief communications officer for DOT, in an email to the Reformer. "We are continuing to evaluate the roadway for potential safety improvements."
Sen. Jay Kahn, who represents Cheshire County in the state senate, said he is urging DOT to continue to listen to the concerns of Chesterfield residents and the traveling public.
And Rep. Michael Abbott, D-Cheshire 1, of Hinsdale, said, as a member of the N.H. House Public Works and Highways Committee he is well aware of the issues along Route 9 and what the state is doing to address the concerns of town residents.
"I can tell you the biggest problem facing the DOT is a lack of revenue," said Abbot. "Their main source of revenue is the gas tax. In the last session, I was the prime sponsor of a bill to raise the gas tax by 6 cents a gallon, which went no where. And with the virus outbreak and the resulting lack of travel, revenue has fallen even more."
Though not an official representative on the Transportation Advisory Committee of the Southwest Regional Planning Commission, he has participated and has been following its discussions. Abbot said Chesterfield hasn't had a representative on the committee since Rick Carrier left as town administrator in late 2017.
In the February letter to the state, the town also asked the state to consider eliminating the breakdown lanes and painting in a center-turn lane where Route 9 passes the Big Deal convenience store. On that section of road there was a serious rear-end crash, in 2019, while another driver was waiting to make a left-hand turn into the store's parking lot. There have been other serious accidents along various sections of Route 9, a number of them resulting in fatalities.
While not discussed in the letter, the Chesterfield Planning Board recently denied an application for a food truck on Route 9 at the intersection of Stow Drive. It was denied partially due to the traffic conditions at that stretch of road, with multiple vehicles making turns onto Stow and nearby Poocham Road. The Planning Board discussed the installation of an eastbound left-hand turn lane so vehicles could turn safely onto Poocham and into the parking lot where the food truck was to be located. But that is not on the state's drawing board either.
Chickering said traffic counts are down since the COVID-19 lockdown, but he also noted that drivers are traveling faster.
"This is not just on Route 9," he said. "It's a problem on all roads."
Chickering said the best thing drivers can do right now until changes are made to the road is to slow down and pay attention to the road.
"In the end, going a little faster is not going to change your travel time," he said. "The most important thing is to get wherever you are going and get there safely."
Chickering also said many people think winter conditions cause more accident than summer conditions.
"No," he said. "Our highest propensity for accidents is nice sunny days when people might not be paying attention and may be driving a little too fast."
Abbot said the SWRPC recently announced it was "requesting project nominations for consideration in the [New Hampshire] 2023-2032 Ten Year Transportation Improvement Plan update process."
SWRPC will be reaching out to selectboards, planning boards, highway departments, and police departments for nominations with an anticipated deadline of Sept. 4. Eligible projects can include highway improvements on federal aid eligible roads, asset management projects, bicycle and pedestrian improvements, infrastructure related travel demand projects, and planning studies.
Bob Audette can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.