By Tracy F. Seelye, Express editor
WHITMAN — A combination of traffic speed, poor visibility and “skewed intersection geometry” has meant years of serious accidents with injuries at the intersection of Franklin and Pleasant streets and South Avenue.
Whitman officials, concerned that a fatal crash could happen there unless a solution is found, met with representatives of the Old Colony Planning Council (OCPC) and MassDOT’s District 5 Traffic Division at Town Hall Thursday, Aug. 21. The meeting was followed by a site visit by OCPC and MassDOT personnel.
“If you’re going to have a fatality in this town, this is a good candidate — unfortunately — for a fatality,” OCPC Senior Transportation Planner Raymond Guarino said during the site visit. “The decision to take action is ultimately up to the town.”
The OCPC can help Whitman line up funding, noting that a project at the intersection would be eligible for federal funding, based on the functional classification as urban arterial of Route 27, if the town opts for a reconstruction option.
Guarino said his office will write a technical memo for the town, updating one written in 2008, listing the intersection’s deficiencies and alternatives.
During the meeting, officials seemed to lean toward a four-way stop with flashing red light overhead, but the potential for traffic backups over the train tracks is a concern.
“One added benefit could be it also slows down the speed of cars on South Avenue,” Assistant Town Administrator Gregory Enos said of a four-way stop. “We’ve got our marching orders … to look at it and see what the possibilities are.”
Reconstructing the intersection to either realign the streets or add a traffic circle are other possibilities, but the impact on a subsurface culvert and homes and businesses near the intersection were a major concern.
Stricter speed control is also an option.
According to Guarino, 85 percent of motorists approaching the intersection from all four directions exceed posted speed limits, in at least one direction — west of the intersection on Route 27 — by an average of 10 miles per hour over the posted limit of 35 mph.
Based on figures from 2007, each day 11,000 vehicles approach the intersection from the west along South Avenue/Route 27; 5,350 from the east on the same road; 5,250 from Franklin Street/Route 27 and 1,700 from Pleasant Street. Most of the Pleasant Street traffic, however, veers off via a fork in the road to head east and merge onto South Avenue.
Over a seven-year study period, the intersection has averaged nearly seven crashes per year. Half of those involved left turns crossing traffic, according to Guarino’s research.
“They’re usually more on the severe side,” Police Chief Scott Benton noted. He stressed traffic enforcement has always been important at the department.
Fire chief Timothy Grenno added that most accidents with injuries there involve rollovers.
Visibility, both advance warning of an intersection and drivers’ line of sight at the stop lines were cited as major shortcomings of the area.
Solar-powered “approaching intersection” signs recently approved at Town Meeting could be placed there to help, DPW Highway Superintendent Bruce Martin said.
“Even if we put up Stop signs and everybody stops … the stop line is way back so that you cannot see any approaching cars coming down South Avenue,” said Selectman Daniel Salvucci. “You’ve got to crawl your car up to the crosswalk, or even over the crosswalk.”
The double lane — for left turn and straight ahead — leaves cars jockeying for a clear line of sight.
“If they jump out, there’s no reaction time,” Guarino agreed.
One option Salvucci suggested the OCPC explore is changing the Franklin Street approach to a single lane.
“You’ve got to direct drivers what to do and when to do it,” Salvucci said. “Or they just do it.”
Intersection design shortcomings are hard to solve, argues MassDOT’s Richard Olivera.
“The geometry is what the geometry is,” he said.
DPW Water and Sewer Superintendent Aaron Richardson and MassDOT representatives Tom Rubello and Mike Martin also attended the meeting.
Richardson suggested a right-turn only lane for South Avenue traffic turning onto Franklin Street. But that, too, could run up against the geography of the corner.
“I’m looking for a ballpark figure on cost and a solution least destructive to the intersection,” Salvucci said. “But it’s a safety issue and we know it — we’ve known it and we’ve tried changing position of stop signs and changing things around. It’s helped but it hasn’t [been] solved.”