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Main Street Growing Pains

City officials say getting the timing right on the traffic lights will really determine the flow along Main Street, but safety for pedestrians and motorists is much improved.

[Editor's Note: You can find a video here, showing how cars were navigating the new traffic patterns last week.]

The new traffic lines are painted, the concrete medians are in, brick pavers overlay freshly painted crosswalks, there are bump-outs at crosswalks, new trees line each side of the street -- except for some smaller items, all that's really left to finish Main Street is tweaking the lights for a smooth traffic flow.

The key piece of the project -- and the most controversial part -- was reducing the lanes from four to two and creating designated turning lanes from Washington Street to Peabody Square and a center lane from Washington down to Howley Street.

The biggest improvement, aside from the aesthetics, is that the bustling thoroughfare is a lot safer now for both pedestrians and motorists, according to city officials and other stakeholders involved in the project.

"I'm hopeful that it will be a lot safer for us. I feel safer crossing one lane of traffic in each direction in front of the library," said Peabody Institute Library Executive Director Martha Holden.

There's now a brand new crosswalk in front of the library as well as a concrete median that separates the two lanes of traffic and offers a safe island for pedestrians in the middle of the street.

Holden said she hadn't heard many initial complaints last week.

"I know there will be a learning curve as people negotiate the new turning lanes... I think it will take a little bit of time for people to get used to, but I think in the long run it will be safer for the pedestrians and for everybody," she said.

"It's definitely a safety improvement from the past two decades," said Mayor Ted Bettencourt, reflecting on his years working out of a law office on Main Street. Pedestrian fatalities in recent years also lent immediacy to move forward on a redesign of the corridor. 

Main Street was first re-engineered about 20 years ago as part of a state project to remove the rotary in the square and widen the traffic lanes to four to better accommodate truck traffic. As a result, the speed of traffic picked up while safety declined, say city officials and police.

City officials started talking about reducing the lanes and making other improvements about seven years ago under Bettencourt's predecessor Michael Bonfanti.

Deputy Police Chief Marty Cohan, who has worked on the project over the years on behalf of the police department, says traffic concerns may be valid, but safety is paramount.

He noted that Route 114 in Peabody used to have at least one or two fatalities each year due to speed, but since all the traffic lights were installed that number has gone right down.

He said the extra minute or two you spend now in traffic "is a small price to pay" if it means saving a life.

Bettencourt said he stopped down to visit Main Street business owners last week and heard nothing but positive feedback at the changes. Any complaints his office received were all from Salem, he said.

"It looks bright, clean, traffic is flowing well," Bettencourt said. "It seems to be going at a great pace."

That being said, "There will always be growing pains," he added. He believes the real test for Main Street will be when school starts back up in September.

He noted that the timing of the traffic lights from the square all the way down to the Salem line at Howley Street will factor significantly in the success or failure of the new traffic patterns.

In comparison to what did exist, however, the lights at all three major intersections will actually communicate with each other now to avoid bottlenecks.

It's clear that some segment of the Peabody populace, however, is not enthusiastic about the changes; in fact, the comments have been explicitly critical of the wisdom of reducing the traffic lanes. Those comments resurfaced again recently among Patch readers.

"I think it's very exciting to have it completed," said Peabody Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Deanne Healey, noting pedestrian safety is much better up near the library and she hadn't seen too many traffic problems last week.

She said she's also heard nothing but positive feedback from Main Street business owners.

"I'm sure there will still be [traffic] backups, as there were before," Healey said, adding that synchronizing the lights will play a big role in the next month or two.

One thing that's not helping, however, is a lot of misinformation that's still spreading among the public, she said. She still gets questions on when angled parking will be installed on Main Street -- that was just one option in the preliminary planning stages of the project, but it has apparently lingered in the years since.

In regard to the pessimism and criticism about the project, Healey is quick to point out that the project was always about safety first -- both for pedestrians and for motorists.

"I think change is difficult for a lot of people," she said. She also added that many of the complaints she's heard come from people who didn't patronize the downtown as it was.

City councilor Dave Gravel, who also owns his own business at 81 Main St., is glad to finally see the traffic changes, agrees that pedestrian safety appears to be greatly improved and likewise feels time will tell how much the changes will improve or degrade traffic on Main Street.

He quickly listed off several smaller fixes he'd like to see, but the main thing for him is enforcement from the police department. He said that will clearly show the city "means business" and reinforce the new rules.

"People used to go whichever way they wanted," Gravel said. He added that he saw some confused looks on the faces of motorists navigating the street last week as they attempted to drive in what used to be a lane but was now parking spaces or use turning lanes to pass other motorists.

Bettencourt said he's already met with Gravel, City Council President Tom Gould and police command staff to discuss a plan for adding patrols for the foreseeable future.

He also said the city will be looking ahead to avoid any problems with plowing in the winter.

Gravel notes there are some elements that even the latest technology and traffic lights can't anticipate, such as a funeral procession that tied up traffic in the square.
anon August 06, 2013 at 08:42 AM
If the backup last Friday at 7:00p.m. Is any indication of what it will be like to drive through Peabody Square, I will avoid it at any cost! Left turns from Central st. To Main St. backed up all directions. And just can't wait to see what plowing does to slow things down even more in the winter!
DEBBIE August 06, 2013 at 11:04 AM
It looks great but even more importantly is that the downtown is much safer now. When you had that four-lane mini highway on Main Street, it was extremely dangerous to parallel park. Even worse was the fact that once you did park your vehicle, it was treacherous in opening your car door (right into traffic) and giving it your best shot in trying to get to the sidewalk without injury (or worse). Yes, like many others I am a little confused with the few small changes but after a few times, I'll have it right.
Elena August 07, 2013 at 10:29 PM
Peabody really missed the boat by not installing angled parking. Also you still have to be careful with road rage drivers when the two lanes go into one heading out of the center.

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