Selectmen this week agreed that temporary design changes made to the south end of the Common rotary should be retained as permanent features, but punted on the related issue of parallel parking, saying the matter warrants further study.
The controversial redesign, which utilizes a “splitter island” to slow traffic and prevent motorists from abrupt lane changes at the Central Street merge, was judged an improvement by board members, who unanimously voted to implement the configuration on a permanent basis.
“I’m not a fan of change, but I do think this one is working,” Chairwoman Leah Gibson said. “I definitely feel this is a lot safer. This design really makes people follow the rules and I like what’s going on at the South Street end.”
While the present concept and island layout will be retained during any permanent installation, public works Director Chris Gallagher advised selectmen to consider a graduated approach that would involve raised traffic islands only as a last resort.
Before then, Gallagher said, the same results might be achieved through the use of rumble strips — roughened concrete or red-brick pavers — and pavement markings to funnel traffic into appropriate lanes without raised obstructions, smoothing turning radius issues for large vehicles and making snow removal easier during winter months.
“We’d want to make it clear this is not something you should be driving over,” he said. “If that doesn’t do the trick then you can always add granite curbing.”
Either way, Gallagher said, the unsightly and confusing orange traffic cones and barrels would ultimately be removed.
While embracing planned changes at the Central Street merge, Gibson voiced mixed feelings about retaining parallel parking in between Main and South streets, saying she has heard the reaction from townspeople “loud and clear.”
Along with fellow board member Stephanie McGowan, Gibson appeared ready to abandon the parallel parking component, but yielded to Selectman Mark Elfman, who asked that the trial be extended another month to evaluate adjustments recommended by Gallagher and Town Engineer Lance Del Priore.
The adjustments in question would widen provisional parallel spaces from Main to South Street from eight to nine feet, and also widen the two travel lanes along that stretch from 10 1/2 to 11 1/2 feet.
“So really you’re gaining an extra two feet on each lane on both lanes and parking spaces,” widening the overall pavement by four feet while still allowing for a five-foot pedestrian walkway around the Common fence, Gallagher said.
That will be accomplished by pushing parallel parking along the inside lane closer to the Common fence — planters will shift over.
The current configuration, with narrower lanes and parallel spaces, has been widely criticized in recent weeks as dangerous, particularly for motorists in parked cars attempting to enter and exit their vehicles.
According to Del Priore, an online survey conducted in late May attracted more than 400 respondents, of whom only 14 percent viewed parallel parking as an improvement.
However, Elfman argued that replacing angled parking with new parallel spaces on both sides of the rotary has significantly reduced the speed of traffic entering from Main Street.
“I know I’m saying it way too often, but as a person that walks down there 3-4 times a day it is slowing down traffic, just like it slowed down on Commercial Street,” he said. “I can’t overemphasize that slowing down and being courteous is an advantage to what we want in the downtown.
“I kind of understand the parallel parking [criticisms],” Elfman continued, noting the board could always revert to angled parking in the future. “But at the same time, it is working in slowing down traffic. People are just wary so they’re driving slower, and that’s OK,”
Planning Director Paige Duncan reminded board members that provisional design changes at the Main Street entrance to the rotary also elicited widespread criticism when introduced two years ago.
“Folks freaked out about the changes up at the top of the Common,” she said, “and I think most of us would agree that has been a tremendous benefit to traffic.”
Duncan said she understands grass-roots opposition to the introduction of parallel parking, but added the speed of traffic circling the rotary continues to be an overriding concern.
“You can hear people zoom as they go around that corner at the top of the Common,” she said. “You can hear them accelerate.”
While board members voted to extend the trial-run for modified parallel parking to July 20, McGowan observed that even the best-laid plans will be unsuccessful unless passing motorists improve their driving habits.
“We can do all of this, and if people don’t follow the correct rules to drive it will never be safe,” McGowan said.