Thank you for your interest in and support of the Valley News. So far, we have raised 80% of the funds required to host journalists Claire Potter and Alex Driehaus for their one-year placements in the Upper Valley through Report for America, a national service program that boosts local news by harnessing community support.

Please consider donating to this effort.

Dicey intersection by Mascoma High has state, town officials in gridlock

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/18/2021 9:14:18 PM
Modified: 9/18/2021 9:14:18 PM

WEST CANAAN — Parents, educators and even some police officers are calling on the New Hampshire Department of Transportation to help with safety improvements along Route 4, saying the intersection at the entrance to Mascoma Valley Regional High School has become a hazard.

An increase in traffic as more people commute from the Mascoma Valley toward employment centers in the Lebanon area, delays in finishing a paving project on Route 4 and more parents driving their children to the high school and adjacent the Indian River middle school have all exacerbated the problem, and a flurry of calls and social media posts directed at state officials took place after an crash during drop-off hours on Monday.

Enfield Police Chief Roy Holland, who regularly drops his son off at the high school, has continued to voice his concerns to the DOT.

“The intersection is definitely much worse since they redid it when the school project happened,” Holland said, referring to a $21.5 million renovation and expansion of the high school that was completed five years ago. “They took a two-lane road and turned it into five lanes with no traffic control devices.”

Route 4 is generally a two-lane road through Canaan, but the intersection at the high school was reworked as part of the renovation to lessen congestion. Turning lanes were added to the east- and westbound lanes of the highway for people turning into the school. Blinking lights were installed at the crosswalk. And student drivers who used to park across the street at the church and cross Route 4 no longer have to do so after the school’s parking lot was expanded. The entrance is also aligned with Blackwater Road so motorists can make a straight shot across Route 4.

Officials in the state Department of Transportation are willing to work with the school district and the towns to come up with solutions to the intersection, according to DOT Assistant Commissioner Bill Cass, who notes that the turning lanes and other improvements five years ago were part of the SAU’s design.

“There’s nothing inherently unsafe in the design that we can point to geometrically,” Cass said. “A lot of it becomes driver behavior and human factors.

“We certainly want to work with the SAU and the town to address this issue,” Cass added. “Safety is everyone’s concern.”

The DOT didn’t start repainting lines marking the various lanes after a summer paving project until last week. Officials said the unpainted portion prompted some motorists to drive faster than they should have (Cass said that the plan was to repaint the lines before the school year began, but July’s heavy rainfall delayed the timing of the Route 4 paving project.)

There is also an influx of parents dropping their kids off at school due to a bus driver shortage, with drivers doubling up on routes. Overall traffic volume has also been on the rise. According to the state Department of Transportation, an average of 6,500 vehicles a day passed through the Route 4 intersection with LaFortune Road, near the high school, in 2014. But by 2018, around 7,617 vehicles were on the road each day at the Enfield/Canaan town line, according to numbers provided by the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission. In 2020, the state counted 7,113 vehicles at the junction of Route 4 and Blackwater Road.

Emails seeking comment Canaan Police Chief Sam Frank last week were not returned. In a Facebook post Monday evening, after the crash and inquiries from the public, Canaan police said the crash was “a result of operator inattention resulting in damage to both of the involved vehicles.”

“It is important to note that despite the traffic volume that this intersection experiences as a result of its close proximity to the school, it is not in fact, an area of frequent motor vehicle crashes. Fewer than 10 motor vehicle crashes have occurred at this intersection over the last five years, two of which were a result of operators following too closely,” the post said.

It also said that because Route 4 is a state highway, anyone wanting more information about safety improvements should reach out to the DOT.

Calls for improvements

But the number of reported crashes does not account for the number of near-misses that happen at the intersection each day, according to Holland, residents and school officials.

“I know this is not going to make me popular with the state engineers in Division 2, but they don’t listen to people,” Holland said. “That’s been a dangerous intersection at the school, and they haven’t done anything about it.”

Mascoma Superintendent Amanda Isabelle, Holland and others are calling on the state to make the intersection safer while at the same time asking motorists to pay close attention while driving through it, yielding to drivers with the right of way. The intersection is usually at its busiest in the morning when students are arriving and people are commuting.

Isabelle would like to see a traffic light that would function at the beginning and end of the school day.

However, Cass said in order for the state to approve a traffic light, there would need to be an established high volume of traffic over the course of eight hours, which the Route 4 intersection does not have. A light that operates only during high traffic volume hasn’t been done in a school zone. Temporary lights are usually reserved for when a public safety facility faces a busy roadway.

“We’re hesitant to install a traffic signal unless they’re truly warranted because it affects traffic all day long, and traffic signals can lead to other problems if not fully looked at,” Cass said. “It can surprise drivers and lead to more rear-end accidents, things like that.”

Tammi DeFelice, of Canaan, said her vehicle was hit when she was driving through the intersection with her daughter two years ago, and she recently wrote state officials and Canaan police, asking them to act.

“I am absolutely worried about my children’s safety,” DeFelice wrote in an email to the Valley News, noting that while her children are home-schooled, they participate in activities at the middle and high schools. “I am stressed every time I drive in the vicinity of the school; about pulling out and driving by, that someone, myself included, will make an unsafe decision and there will be yet another accident.”

Canaan Town Administrator Mike Samson said Canaan police officers regularly patrol the area in front of the high school, but because of staff shortages are unable to be there every day.

“The No. 1 issue in that intersection is people not paying attention,” Samson said. “The No. 2 issue from my point of view is it’s a state highway. Even when we try to do something up in the village of Canaan with the crosswalks, we’re at the mercy of what the state says we can do.”

Some regular users say the improvements in 2016 have made a difference.

“There was such a bottleneck there before, so I think the new design certainly makes traffic flow better in the morning,” said Debra Ford, the former business administrator at the district who is currently consulting for the school. “It does seem very smooth to me when people aren’t speeding.”

But there have been ongoing complaints, too. The state looked into it and in 2020 wrote back to the district that the intersection was safe and needed no further upgrades. Officials who observed the intersection during its busy hours also noted that people did not always adhere to the right of way.

“Folks in the left-turn lanes are waving people to let them go out of the intersection, and they get hit by someone in the through lane,” Cass said. Other people became impatient waiting and turned anyway, creating unsafe situations.

“I do believe if the Canaan police would spend a little time there monitoring traffic, it would slow it down and maybe it would be just one or two days a week and people wouldn’t know when to expect them to be there, and I think that would be helpful,” Ford said.

Holland, the Enfield police chief, said he hopes the state can do something before it’s too late.

“It will be a sad day if it takes somebody being critically injured or dying in that intersection to get it fixed,” he said.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.




Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784
603-298-8711

 

© 2021 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy