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City ponders signs to stop trucks on side streets

NORTHAMPTON — David Newton is so used to confused truck drivers rolling through his North Street neighborhood that he now takes the time to flag them down.

Once they stop, Newton, who lives near the intersection of North Street and Lincoln Avenue, explains to drivers that big trucks are not allowed on the small side streets surrounding the industrial park off Bates Street.

“I stop at least one truck a week and talk to them,” said Newton, of 211 North St.

That’s why he’s hopeful that a recent measure proposed by Ward 3 City Councilor Ryan R. O’Donnell to require installation of warning signs on all city streets that prohibit commercial truck traffic — and display an associated $300 fine — will get the attention of drivers. The City Council approved the ordinance amendment on first reading last week and is expected to take a final vote at its July 10 meeting.

Many drivers who use North, Lincoln Avenue and other streets as shortcuts to enter and exit the city are unaware of regulations banning commercial trucks from these streets, officials say. Some end up on these streets to avoid a railroad bridge over Main Street downtown or to get to the industrial park without taking the heavily trafficked Damon Road. While many are being inadvertently directed to side streets by their GPS systems, Newton and others believe many drivers know the rules but simply ignore them because of the time it takes to navigate Damon.

Truck traffic has been a festering issue in the neighborhoods surrounding the industrial park for many years, and it grew worse after Coca-Cola expanded its bottling plant in 2011. The city and Coca-Cola officials have tried to address the issue in many ways since then, including installation of directional signs in the industrial park, along nearby streets and at Exit 19 of Interstate 91. The company also monitors the direction its drivers use to reach the plant and warns them which roads to avoid.

Additionally, a laser-triggered warning system that seeks to direct tractor-trailer trucks coming off I-91 at Exit 19 went live in the fall of 2012. Ideally, trucks coming off the interstate are supposed to go straight through the intersection at Route 9 and onto Damon Road to Industrial Drive. But GPS systems tend to direct the trucks toward downtown and the low-clearance bridge. For truckers who notice the signs and realize they will not fit under the bridge, the designated escape route is Lincoln Avenue and Phillips Place.

Newton said the steps taken in recent years have worked, but only to a degree. He estimates the truck volume has been cut by about one-third.

“It’s better, but by no means is the issue solved,” Newton said. “It’s still a dozen trucks every 24 hours.”

O’Donnell’s proposal requires the Department of Public Works to install the new signs on nine streets on which commercial vehicles have been banned for years, but it does not add new streets to that list, O’Donnell said. Nearly all of the streets are in Ward 3 not far from the industrial park. The signs, to be installed later this summer, must be “clear and conspicuous” and clearly display the $300 fine.

To account for honest mistakes by drivers who are directed to take the residential streets by GPS, the ordinance states that they may first be issued a warning for using designated detours. O’Donnell said the ordinance closes a loophole by allowing drivers to be fined for repeated violations.

“This would simply say that it’s OK to do that, but you can’t keep doing it over and over again because it’s easier than going up Damon Road, which residents suspect happens from time to time,” O’Donnell said.

Newton supports the idea, but also urges city officials to go beyond signs and engage the state Department of Transportation as it moves ahead with a redesign of Exit 19. He said the solution is to help drivers get from the exit’s off-ramp directly onto Damon Road rather than turning left onto Bridge Street.

“The key to the solution lies in how you design the rampway not only with signage but with whatever methods help the drivers go where they need to go,” Newton said. “Once they turn left, the problem looms large in front of them and in front of us.”

Design of the I-91 exit ramp, a project years in the making, is 25 percent complete with construction scheduled for 2020, DOT spokeswoman Amanda Richard said. Improvements include construction of a two-lane roundabout to replace the traffic signals now at the intersection of Route 9 and Damon Road where the interstate’s northbound exit ramp ends, as well as a widening of the ramp. A second left-turn lane to enter the I-91 southbound on-ramp would be added.

Another more immediate improvement to the intersection of Damon Road and Industrial Drive should reduce some of the congestion problems on Damon and make it easier for trucks to enter and exit the industrial park, Department of Public Works Director Edward S. Huntley said. Plans call for the state this summer to install a new traffic signal and upgrades to the railroad crossing signals, as well as coordination of those lights with a nearby traffic signal on King Street.

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