Selectmen next week will be asked to green light the first in a series of proposed modifications aimed at improving traffic flow around the Common rotary.
That change, billed as a temporary trial run that would prompt other improvements if deemed successful, is tentatively slated to begin Monday, Oct. 21.
It involves installing temporary traffic barriers at the head of Main Street to force approaching vehicles into the left-hand inside lane for through-traffic continuing around the Common, or the right-hand outside lane for vehicles exiting onto Main Street.
In addition, Rockhill Street would be reconfigured for one-way traffic flowing from Market Street to the Common — preventing vehicles from directly exiting the rotary onto Rockhill Street.
Officials hope these, and other changes will smooth traffic merging into the rotary from Main Street and ease lengthy backups there, particularly during morning and afternoon commuting hours.
The aggressive timetable for the pilot program was announced Tuesday night during a fractious Town Hall meeting convened to solicit feedback on the proposed traffic improvements.
Commencing with a summary of broader downtown plans which call for similar modifications at the Mechanic, Central and Bird street intersections, the 90-minute meeting was attended by some three dozen town officials, business owners and residents who live nearby.
Timothy Thomson, a traffic engineer hired by the town, outlined the overall proposal while recommending that improvements be implemented piecemeal, beginning with the Main Street intersection — which he identified as the most constricted.
Before completing his presentation, however, Thomson was deluged with questions, alternative suggestions and outright predictions of failure from those skeptical of the plan.
Some onlookers argued that safe lane changes are impractical while circling the rotary — a key element to any future improvements. Others suggested that excessive speed was the primary culprit.
“The biggest problem I have is that people drive too fast,” said Steven Harding of North High Street. “Controlling speed is key to this.”
Former selectman James DeVellis, who serves as president of the board at the Marilyn Rodman Performing Arts Center, voiced concerns about making Rockhill Street one-way to the Common, especially during sold-out events at the Orpheum Theater.
“One problem is solved, but you may be creating another one,” DeVellis observed.
Pat Larkin of Baker Street took this one step further, saying officials should consider closing Rockhill Street to vehicles entirely, making it a pedestrian thoroughfare appealing to theater patrons and customers of the proposed brewpub under consideration at the former fire station.
Larkin also suggested that stop signs at the entrances of South and Mechanic streets were unnecessary, and only contribute to backups at those locations without improving safety.
Several in attendance called on planners to reposition crosswalks leading from the Common, characterizing them as unsafe and predicting the proposed modifications could make a bad situation worse.
Towards this end, Gordon Greene of Villa Drive suggested the town install a concrete walkway encircling the Common just outside the iconic, wrought-iron fence, and in front of the angled parking spaces.
Greene, a former planning board member who praised the recommendations, explained that crosswalks are currently positioned at every one of the spoked sidewalks exiting the Common — which may not be the optimal locations.
Installing a walkway would enable pedestrians to more safely access re-positioned crosswalks which may not align with the spoked sidewalks on the Common, he said.
More pointedly, Selectwoman Leah Gibson said the crosswalk in front of Bank of America should be closed off while re-configuring the Main Street intersection, if only because drivers will be preoccupied with the new traffic pattern.
Trying to manage the raucous give-and-take, Town Engineer Chris Gallagher at one point called for decorum.
“We’ve got to take control of this because there are six conversations going on at once,” Gallagher said. “Let’s try to focus on one thing at a time.”
Eventually, however, a grudging consensus began to emerge that, while imperfect, the proposed modifications could help improve traffic flow in the area.
That view was reinforced by Police Chief Michael Grace, who explained that local officers routinely implement similar traffic controls following New England Patriots games by parking a cruiser directly in front of the Main Street intersection.
The stationary cruiser forces rotary traffic using the inside lane to continue on around the Common while vehicles in the outside lane must exit at Main Street.
“I know everybody has concerns, but this does work,” Grace said. “It happens every game day.”
Afterwards, selectmen Chairman Mark Elfman, who lives nearby on Main Street, described the police department’s post-game routine “a game changer.”
“That’s how I know [the proposed modification] is going to work,” Elfman remarked.
According to Town Planner Paige Duncan, the temporary modifications are envisioned as a four-week trial which would revert to existing traffic patterns in mid-November. Permanent design changes would presumably take effect in 2020.
However, many in attendance Tuesday night urged town officials to leave the modifications in place if they prove successful.
“If it works, leave it,” said Robert Shea of Market Street. “Otherwise, people are going to be very confused.”