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Jim Kenyon: Enthusiasm Curbed for Dulac Street’s ‘Chicanes’

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Sunday, August 06, 2017

In 2005, Hanover introduced the Upper Valley to the roundabout, a “traffic-calming” feature that only world travelers or fans of National Lampoon’s European Vacation had any familiarity with.

The many tires gashed beyond repair notwithstanding, the angst over two roundabouts on Lyme Road has pretty much gone the way of the Upper Valley’s initial fixation with bridge balls. (For newcomers, they’re the large ornamental spheres on the Ledyard Bridge between Hanover and Norwich.)

Now it’s Lebanon’s turn to unveil a piece of roadwork that will take some getting used to.

It’s called a chicane (pronounced she-cane), which I believe is French for spare no expense when taxpayers are picking up the tab.

This summer, Lebanon erected a pair of matching chicanes on Dulac Street, a neighborhood of 15 or so modest homes not far from downtown, at roughly $19,000 apiece.

Compared with Hanover’s roundabouts, which cost about $100,000 each, chicanes are a public works bargain — if there is such a thing.

Still, I’m not sold. The city’s desire to slow traffic in a residential neighborhood is a worthy goal. But I suspect the Fast and the Furious crowd will see the chicanes as more of an obstacle course than a roadblock. (I’m told chicanes are a regular feature of Grand Prix auto-racing courses.)

Dulac Street’s chicanes are situated at each end of the neighborhood. They’re tough to describe, but envision a 40-foot-long raised stone patio bordered by granite curbing that juts halfway out into the street.

“I’ve never seen one of these before,” said Jen Kendall, who was driving from Claremont to Hartford on Thursday when her smartphone’s GPS took her along Dulac. “It’s different, for sure.”

In theory, the artificial narrowing of the street (that’s traffic engineer lingo for road barrier) forces drivers to think about all the bad things that could happen when approaching a section of road that suddenly shifts from two lanes to one.

City Engineer Christina Hall was patient enough to explain to me the benefits from a traffic-management perspective. “They make people slow down because there is something in front of them,” Hall said.

After driving Dulac Street, City Councilor Tim McNamara, who manages infrastructure projects as Dartmouth’s associate director of campus services, isn’t convinced that chicanes are a good idea.

“It looks dangerous,” McNamara told his colleagues at a council meeting last month.

Later, McNamara told me, “I can see someone driving headlong into these things and doing damage to themselves and their car.”

From what I’ve read, chicanes are popular in Seattle. Flowers and shrubs are planted inside them to spruce up roadways. Sculptures are sometimes added to the mix as well.

Lebanon didn’t go that far. Its chicanes are marked by a half dozen traffic warning signs with lots of arrows that arguably make them more confusing than calming.

For years, Dulac Street residents have dealt with drivers who flout the neighborhood’s 25 mph speed limit. The other day, during a stroll through the neighborhood, I asked Bob Pyer, who was headed into his house, about the problem.

The street, which overlooks the Mascoma River, is used by motorists seeking a shortcut to Route 120 to avoid downtown. “We also get the kid in his mom’s mini-van who figures he’s Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” said Pyer, showing it’s possible to have a sense of humor about the topic.

A while back, in response to neighborhood concerns, the city installed a series of speed tables along Dulac. But with the exception of two tables near Storrs Hill Ski Area, they were removed to make way for the chicanes.

“It doesn’t make sense,” McNamara said. “It seemed to me that the speed tables were doing the job.”

Pyer tended to agree. “We weren’t thrilled that they were taking out the speed (tables),” he said.

But Pyer and other residents are taking a wait-and-see attitude about the chicanes’ ability to discourage speeders. “I like the idea,” said Luke Harvey, who was staining his front steps when I interrupted him. “I just don’t know if two are enough.”

Hall told me that she wasn’t sure who proposed the chicanes, but the timing made sense. In the summer of 2013, severe rainstorms washed out Dulac Street and nearby Slayton Hill Road.

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency contributed more than $3 million to restoring Slayton Hill Road, the city’s taxpayers were on the hook for Dulac Street.

Rebuilding the street this summer turned into quite an undertaking. A new drainage system and an underground retaining wall needed to stabilize a steep embankment were big-ticket items.

The city spent $1.5 million on rebuilding and repaving a quarter-mile stretch of the street. So throwing in a couple of chicanes for less than 40 grand suddenly doesn’t sound bad.

“I’m just worried about it setting a precedent,” McNamara said. “We have limited resources for infrastructure projects.”

I see his point. Shouldn’t other neighborhoods with speeding concerns deserve their own chicanes, too?

The Federal Highway Administration would certainly support it. The agency makes a case for traffic-calming devices on every U.S. street, arguing — if you can believe it — that they can even reduce crime.

According to the agency’s website, “It’s harder to make a speedy getaway if a fleeing felon has to deal with speed humps, woonerfs and traffic circles.”

Woonerf?

I have no idea what that is. But I have a feeling it could be Dutch for spare no expense when taxpayers are picking up the tab.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.