CHATHAM — Though doing so might draw public ire, might worsen bike congestion downtown – and ultimately might not yield a workable plan – the select board Tuesday voted to continue the redesign of the tricky intersection of Route 28 and Crowell, Queen Anne and Depot roads. If they don’t, the board reasoned, safety problems will remain at the crossroads, and the town risks losing more than $3 million in state and federal aid.
For around 20 years, the town has identified the need to improve pedestrian and bike safety, handicap access, traffic flow and vehicle safety at the busy intersection, which includes both town roads and Route 28, which is owned by the state. Efforts so far have failed to find a design that meets state standards and also passes muster with residents concerned about the visual impact and scale of a new intersection.
With the project tentatively slated to receive $3,158,868 in federal and state funding in federal fiscal year 2027, town staff and consulting engineers recommended accepting MassDOT’s plans as a means of advancing the project to the 25 percent design phase. At that stage, a public hearing will be held to allow citizens to sound out on the project and to allow town officials to make the case for minor design modifications. The MassDOT design is virtually identical to one favored by the town’s design team, with one key difference: a dedicated east-to-west bike lane.
Both designs include improved sidewalks, vehicle turning lanes, high-tech traffic signals, crosswalks and better sight lines for the five-way intersection. They also both include five-foot-wide on-road bicycle lanes traveling from north to south on Crowell and Queen Anne roads. But while the state plan calls for five-foot bike lanes traveling east and west on Route 28, the town’s design favors having bikes share the vehicle travel lane, albeit with a three-foot shoulder on both sides of the road. Town officials have argued that cyclists should use the Old Colony Rail Trail rather than Route 28 for east-west travel rather than having them enter the congested downtown area on Main Street.
“You have a bike lane going to nowhere under either proposal,” board member Dean Nicastro said. Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said MassDOT has been adamant about keeping the five-foot-wide shared use path in the design.
“They want every new project to have a bike lane. So that’s our issue,” she said.
“If we decide to kill it now, just for argument’s sake, any future board could bring it back up again for discussion, but it would have to start at step one,” board member Cory Metters said.
But killing the project is not a viable alternative, select board member Michael Schell said.
“We have a safety factor to consider here as a town,” he said. As a practical matter, the board should advance the state’s design in order to reach the 25 percent design public hearing, and then “come back and deal with it when we have all the information in front of us, and we have the community in front of us.”
Fire Chief David DePasquale said the new traffic signals are needed to provide safer access for fire trucks and ambulances passing through the intersection from Depot Road, where the fire station is located. If the town decides to advance its own design, the debate will continue past 2027 and the project will be scrubbed, he predicted. “I’d like to see the project go forward,” DePasquale said.
Police Chief Mike Anderson said he favors proceeding with the project as a means of improving safety for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists. “We’ve done analysis on crash data that shows, oddly enough, that this is a fairly safe intersection,” he said. Anderson said he’s also concerned that the state’s design will encourage cyclists on Route 28 to continue east up the hill toward the rotary, worsening congestion. A better plan, he said, would be to divert bike traffic up Depot Road where it would meet the trailhead of the Old Colony Rail Trail at Hitching Post Road.
Select board Chair Jeffrey Dykens said the intersection needs better signals and pedestrian accommodations, and the designs accomplish this while improving sight lines for vehicles. The town should spend some of its state highway funds now to support moving the state design to the 25 percent phase, with the goal of trying to retain the state and federal construction funds – even if that means accepting unwanted bike lanes.
“We’d been accepting bike lanes to nowhere on Route 28 for $3.2 million,” he said. While the accident rate at the intersection is low, there was a fatal pedestrian accident very close by several years ago, underscoring the need to provide better sidewalks and to slow traffic in the area, Dykens said.
“What we’ve lost sight of is the magnitude of this project,” resident Elaine Gibbs said. The new design will result in a much larger paved area with significantly wider travel lanes, she noted. The town should abandon the intersection plan and merely maintain the infrastructure that’s there, Gibbs said.
Mark Gravallese of the town’s design firm, Howard Stein Hudson, said merely upgrading the outdated traffic signals is not an option, since doing so triggers compliance with various other design standards, including provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In any case, Route 28 is a state-owned road, and if the town pursues its own design, it would likely forfeit future design funds as well as construction funds, he said.
“I think we’ve got a good compromise here,” resident Frank Messina said. He rejected the idea that the public opposes the project, and said it would provide important safety improvements, particularly for cyclists.
Resident Gloria Freeman said the state is again forcing the town to accept its design or lose funding. The proposal would drastically change the appearance of the intersection, which admittedly does need improvements. “But not at the cost of our sense of place and sense of pride,” she said.
Select board members acknowledged the divisiveness of the West Chatham roadway reconstruction project, and said a similar debate may lie ahead for this project.
“I fear what it’s going to turn into,” Nicastro said. “At the same time, we don’t have the luxury of being able to correct those problems that do exist there, because it’s not our road,” he said.
“West Chatham was no picnic,” Metters added. But advancing the design will give the town a chance to review the project in detail “and see where it leads.”
Board member Shareen Davis was not present, but expressed her support for the project in a written statement that Dykens read aloud. The board voted unanimously to accept staff’s recommendation to move the project forward to the 25 percent design submission using the plan favored by MassDOT. If the review process continues as expected, the 25 percent design public hearing would likely happen sometime next spring.