CHATHAM — At the request of local business owners, selectmen this week rejected a proposal that would have put in place a one-month detour allowing only westbound traffic through the West Chatham Roadway Project construction zone.
The decision will spare stores and restaurants in the area from the detour, which some claim would kill business, but it is also likely to add another year to the project.
Roadway contractor Lawrence Lynch Corp. proposed the one-way detour as a means of shortening the delays caused by an error earlier this year by National Grid. The natural gas utility buried gas mains too close to the surface near the proposed roundabouts on Route 28 by Barn Hill and George Ryder roads, and rather than dig up the gas line and bury it deeper, the contractor has proposed raising the roundabouts to provide the required 36-inch depth.
To expedite that process, Lawrence Lynch proposed restricting Route 28 traffic to westbound traffic only for up to one month. Selectmen supported the roadway reconstruction project on the condition that two-way traffic be maintained through the area for the duration. For that reason, state transportation officials asked selectmen to approve the detour plan before authorizing it.
Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis asked why the detour is required, given the impact it would cause on West Chatham businesses. “We’ve had a lot of detouring in Chatham lately,” she said. “It’s been quite a challenge.”
Public Works Director Thomas Temple said Lawrence Lynch was actually ahead of schedule before the National Grid error, and the project is now about three months behind schedule. The detour could allow the project to be completed in December 2021, rather than April of that year, Temple said. The detour would likely take place in the spring, he said. It would last less than a month, and police officers and sign boards would help motorists understand how to access local businesses. Access to those businesses would always be available, though only from the east side. Two-way traffic would be restored at night and on weekends.
“Why don’t we just bury the gas line deeper?” Selectman Cory Metters asked. After the Merrimack Valley natural gas disaster, utilities are now required to have projects like this one reviewed by an engineer, Temple said. Doing that would add significantly to the project timeline, he said.
“You’re talking another full year,” he said.
David Norris of Shop Ahoy Liquors said he’ll lose business if customers have to drive way around to access his store. “They’re not going to do it,” he said. “There are other choices for them.” Norris said he believes funds should be set aside to help businesses harmed by the construction project. The detour would be devastating to businesses like his, Norris said.
“I would rather expand out the timeline” than have traffic restricted to one direction for a month, he said.
“You understand that’s going to be burdensome too?” Selectman Dean Nicastro said.
“There’s no real win here,” Norris replied.
“Personally, I think the gas company should be responsible for this,” said Walter Kane of Chatham’s Furniture. His busiest month is June, and stopping eastbound traffic would kill commerce in West Chatham, he said. “Definitely you should keep your word to the businesses,” Kane added.
“People are creatures of habit,” West Chatham businessman Doug Meservey said. If customers have to find another place to shop or eat for an entire month, “a lot of these people won’t come back,” he said. Though he and others in West Chatham opposed this roadway project, they now want to see it finished in the hopes that it will deliver the promised benefits like more foot traffic and greater safety. But if the detour ends up wrecking local businesses, “some of us won’t see that benefit,” Meservey said.
“This is a massive, massive screw-up,” resident Elaine Gibbs said. The town promised to keep two-way traffic flowing during the project, she noted. While Lawrence Lynch is simply trying to recover time lost because of the gas company’s mistake, “we can’t help them meet their contract at the expense of our businesses,” she said. Gibbs said she believes that re-grading the roundabouts to accommodate the proper depth of gas pipes will cause drainage problems and other complications, and the town should demand that the problem be fixed properly.
“And if that means they’ve got to dig up the pipes and bury them again, so be it,” she said.
“The error was made on the part of the gas company,” Selectman Peter Cocolis said. A month-long detour could be very damaging to businesses, he said, and if the public isn’t clear about how the detour works or how long it will last, they will simply avoid the area. “We have businesses at risk. And that is more important than a schedule,” he said.
Metters said he believes that the gas company should be required to fix the problem.
“This is gas,” he said. “I don’t want to be on the news like other communities,” he said. And with regard to the pledge to avoid any detours, “I made that commitment and I’m going to stand by that commitment,” he said.
On a motion by Metters, the board voted 4-0 to decline the request for the detour, and to have the state require that the gas mains be reburied at the proper depth. Selectman Jeffrey Dykens recused himself from the vote because he owns property in the area.
The motion also asks MassDOT to have any remedial work be done at night to accelerate the schedule, to inquire about the availability of grants to support affected businesses, and to secure appropriate signage to direct people to local businesses.