Plan for Lebanon roundabout near final stage, despite push for alternative
|Published: 10-13-2023 9:09 AM
LEBANON — After years of planning, a roundabout project intended to improve traffic and safety at an awkward city intersection is in its final stage of design. But some residents, concerned about the project cost and the impact on pedestrians and cyclists, would like the city to consider other alternatives.
In August, the New Hampshire Department of Transportation approved a $4.6 million project to construct a roundabout at the intersection of Mascoma, Mechanic and High streets in downtown Lebanon.
A traffic study of the Mechanic Street corridor — also known as Route 4 — completed in 2018 found the intersection hazardous due to its confusing design and poor sight distance. According to the study, the High Street and Mascoma Street approaches are at skewed angles to Mechanic Street, the existing sidewalks are inadequate to protect pedestrians and the only crosswalk is not located in the vicinity of the intersection.
Eighty percent of the project, approximately $3.7 million, will be funded by the state, and the city will cover the remaining share of $937,000.
City Engineer Rod Finley, at a meeting in June, told the city Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee that the city hopes to begin soliciting contractor bids in January and to begin construction next year.
Before that can happen, the city will need to secure the right of way for the project, which will necessitate the purchase of 1 High St., a commercial building being rented by Cambodian restaurant Phnom Penh Sandwich Station.
Tracy Pelletier, the building owner, strongly opposes the proposed roundabout, considering it too expensive, unwarranted and poorly conceived.
“What they are proposing to spend on this project is outrageous and not justified,” Pelletier said in a phone interview.
In addition to cost concerns — and not wanting to lose his property — Pelletier said the intersection is not a good fit for a roundabout. The grade changes are steep, he said, and could cause significant sight problems for motorists approaching the roundabout, unless corrected through extensive engineering work.
Resident Dan Nash — an engineer who helped Pelletier devise an alternative plan for improving the intersection — said in a phone interview that roundabouts are better suited to flat terrain. In contrast, the Mechanic Street project would need to raise the grade on one street by about 8 feet to make the circle level.
Addressing the grade change is possible, but it “just costs much more,” Nash said. “This is an expensive, disruptive project, and to what benefit?”
Pelletier also said he worries about placing a roundabout that divides the rail trail that passes through the intersection.
The city’s preliminary roundabout design proposes connecting the trails with a sidewalk. Trail users would use crosswalks to get across High Street and Mascoma Street. Finley, speaking at the July meeting, said these crossings would be safer than crossing the present intersection because the roundabout traffic will only be coming in one direction.
Pelletier said he believes trail users will find this inconvenient.
“I believe many people will still try to cut straight through the roundabout and create a safety issue, (while) others will likely opt to turn around at the intersection and return in the direction they came,” Pelletier stated in a letter to the city.
An alternative proposal designed by Nash replaces the roundabout with a curbed island in the intersection — which would function similarly to a roundabout. But traffic on Route 4, which is the main thoroughfare through the area, would bypass the island.
In addition, the trail connection would pass straight across the island, crossing over two streets. Pelletier said this alternative would connect the trails more directly and be more inviting to trail users.
Nash said his alternative design would cost only around $50,000 to construct, though he did not have a cost analysis.
Pelletier said he is reluctant to sell his property to the city to facilitate this roundabout project.
He would sell if he believed there would be improvements to pedestrian and traffic safety, but this roundabout “is not that project,” Pelletier said.
City Manager Shaun Mulholland said in a phone interview that Pelletier had expressed interest in selling his property to the city in 2018, only the project had not advanced enough for the city to consider a purchase.
“So we are puzzled (by his change of mind),” Mulholland said.
Pelletier explained that his interest in 2018 was to sell the property to the owner of Phnom Penh, not the city of Lebanon. Pelletier said he was frustrated at the time because he could not make any decisions about the property because of the uncertainty created by the project.
“It left me in limbo” for several years, Pelletier said.
In April, Pelletier submitted a petition to the city with 190 signatures expressing opposition to the project, as well as the alternative project drafted by Nash.
Mulholland said the alternative proposal was shared with the City Council.
“But we don’t think it’s a viable plan,” Mulholland said. “We believe the one that we have proposed is a viable plan.”
According to NHDOT right of way guidelines, the state has the ability to take possession of a property by eminent domain. In this situation, the owner would be paid a fair market value for the property that is determined by a certified appraiser.
The property owner has the right to appeal to the state Board of Tax Land Appeals and to the state Superior Court for just compensation, according to the NHDOT guidelines. Property owners may also use this appeal process to challenge the state’s reason for exercising eminent domain.
Patrick Adrian may be reached at email@example.com or 603.727-3216.