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Towns’ requests to N.H. to lower speed limits on Route 120 backfire



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 14, 2019

LEBANON — Bill and Lois Fitts can recall when Route 120 was quieter and less congested with cars making the daily commute between Lebanon and Claremont.

The couple moved to Creamery Road — a roughly 500-foot side street south of Cornish Flat — about 38 years ago. Back then, they rarely noticed a noisy truck or speeding motorcycle.

But problems have steadily worsened as the Upper Valley has grown and developed to the point where it now seems few follow the speed limit at all, they say.

“My wife and I sat down here a couple of mornings early to watch the commuter traffic and jotted down the speeds we saw,” Bill Fitts said while standing at the end of Creamery Road on Wednesday afternoon.

He stopped as a truck drove past and approached a 35 mph speed limit sign, which soon flashed “41.”

“We got a few that were over 50 (mph) but more of them were in the 40s,” he said. “Very few of them would be right down to 35, and we don’t expect that.”

Concerned about speeding and difficulty turning into and out of their neighborhood, the Fitts’ brought their concerns to town and state Department of Transportation, hoping officials would extend the nearby 35 mph speed zone to include their home.

Instead, officials this summer proposed moving the sign further north and announced plans to increase the speed limit on Route 120 in Plainfield and Lebanon.

“There is a common misconception that lowering the value of the posted speed limit will result in a similar reduction in the speed of traffic,” state traffic engineer William Lambert wrote in letters to Lebanon, Plainfield and Cornish. “That is frankly not the case.”

Each driver determines speed based on traffic, road conditions, weather and whether there’s a perceived police presence, Lambert wrote in the letter dated July 29. So, when few people follow the posted speed limit, he said, it’s time for a change.

That’s the case on many sections of Route 120, which underwent speed studies and a field evaluation after the Fitts’ brought their concerns forward, Lambert said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

In areas of Lebanon where the speed is posted at 40 mph, the average driver is traveling between 43 and 44 mph, according to DOT figures. And in Plainfield, where the speed limit is 35 mph, cars are on average at 42 mph.

To bring those speeds in line with the posted limits, the DOT proposed several changes on Route 120.

North of Kinne Street in Lebanon, the speed limit would increase from 30 mph to 35 mph. Meanwhile, the road south of Barden Hill Road in Lebanon to north of the Croydon Turnpike in Plainfield would be posted at 45 mph “so that there is one common speed limit for this relatively uniform segment that reflects the character of the road,” Lambert wrote.

In Cornish, transportation officials recommended moving the 35 mph speed zone “closer to the densely developed area of Cornish Flat in both directions,” leaving the Fitts in the 50 mph zone.

The competing views on speed came to a head during a Cornish Selectboard meeting in July, where town officials pushed back against the DOT recommendations and urged them to expand the 35 mph speed zone to include Creamery Road.

“There was enough people that were concerned about safety that (expanding the zone) was the compromise we came to,” Selectboard Chairman John Hammond said on Wednesday.

Other communities are preparing similar campaigns against the DOT recommendations. Lebanon has submitted two letters calling on the state to reverse its stance.

“These areas are seeing additional pedestrian and bicycle activity,” City Manager Shaun Mulholland wrote in an Aug. 5 letter. “The sections of roadway do not have sidewalks, breakdown lanes or bicycle lanes. Increasing speeds enhances the risks to pedestrians, bicyclists as well as motorists trying to maneuver around them.”

Plainfield Town Administrator Steve Haleran said that while the Selectboard has yet to address the DOT’s recommendations, the town plans to oppose them. Residents already complain that speeds are too high and requesting they be decreased, said Halleran, who was surprised by the state’s findings.

Lambert, the DOT engineer, said he doesn’t yet know when the speed limits could change. But he would be willing to meet with Plainfield and Lebanon to discuss the matter beforehand.

“While we have the authority (to change speed limits), we also want community buy in,” he said.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.