JAFFREY — Potentially drastic changes to downtown along Route 202 from a planned double roundabout divided Jaffrey residents Wednesday night at a standing-room only public hearing at the VFW off Hathorn Road.
Pedestrian safety came to the fore amid lingering concerns about the fate of businesses like the Lab n’ Lager tavern, which is one of two buildings slated to be razed to accommodate the infrastructure overhaul.
The public feedback session for the estimated $8.6 million double roundabout was the third and final one put on by the N.H. Department of Transportation ahead of more concrete decisions heading into construction over the summers of 2022 and 2023, according to department Commissioner Victoria Sheehan.
Residents will have 10 days to submit any further feedback in writing to DOT.
No municipal funds will go into the project, with 80 percent set to be covered by the federal government and the other 20 percent by the state, Sheehan said.
Orchestrating Wednesday’s proceedings once again was Marty Kennedy, N.H. DOT engineer and project manager, who delivered a more refined version of his presentation from last November.
But Kennedy’s pitch to Jaffrey residents remained largely unchanged: The problem downtown isn’t too much traffic, but an inefficient setup causing delays and safety concerns for motorists and pedestrians alike.
At the project’s outset in 2017, Kennedy, engineers and a town advisory committee sought to find a way to alleviate the congestion brought by Route 202 being funneled into the downtown by the Contoocook River, and to ameliorate a dogleg left turn along Peterborough Street, which the project’s committee found frequently results in frustrating backups.
The solution, according to Kennedy, would be to install two roundabouts and create a new bridge crossing the river. The bridge would connect the new roundabouts and provide an easier traffic flow for motorists along Route 202 while freeing up more space for pedestrians downtown.
The renovations could also perhaps improve Jaffrey’s standing as a commercial destination in the process, he added.
One big roundabout on the south bank of the river would form a hub, with five spokes connecting Turnpike Road (Route 124), Stratton Road, Blake Street, Main Street and Peterborough Street (Route 202). This roundabout would require the Lab n’ Lager to be torn down.
Across the river, the new bridge would bring traffic from Peterborough Street in a westbound loop, forming a smaller roundabout and a new extension to Route 202 with access to downtown businesses along River Street.
The bridge connecting the five-way roundabout to the three-way roundabout across the river would eliminate the pesky hard left turn onto Peterborough Street across from Lab n’ Lager, according to Kennedy.
Kennedy showed drone footage of the downtown, capturing dicey incidents involving schoolchildren trying to cross the more than 100-foot intersection of Route 202 and Main Street, in addition to the well documented inefficiencies of the dogleg left onto Peterborough Street.
More drone footage was shown of a test from last September held in the ConVal Regional High School parking lot in Peterborough, where a variety of trucks were put through the ringer of both roundabout designs to test the trickiest turns imaginable.
The test showed buses, tractor trailers and other large vehicles clearing the course with ease.
Nevertheless, several residents who came to the microphone Wednesday remained skeptical of DOT’s expertise.
“You put a roundabout in, it’s gonna be a problem,” Cliff Pelissier, owner of a Jaffrey trucking company, said during the open comment period. “I don’t see any safer crossing for pedestrians than it is right now. ... I think it’s just a waste of money.”
DOT officials did not engage with residents or offer answers during the feedback portion of the evening, simply recording their information for future consideration.
Residents who spoke largely fell into two camps: Those in favor of the improvements that could come with the double roundabout, and those who felt the changes are unnecessary — at best reinventing the wheel, and at worst, bringing more harm than good.
The potential impact on affordable housing and attracting young people to Jaffrey was also brought up, by Kelly Jean, whose driveway on River Street would extend directly into the three-way roundabout on the north bank of the river.
“It’s priceless to me as far as the value that I’m going to lose ... If you want younger people to come here, you can’t push them out. You can’t knock down the only affordable housing right near us,” Jean said of the River Street parcel that would be the other property acquired by DOT and demolished for the project.
Donald “Doni” Ash, owner of both the Jaffrey and Keene Lab n’ Lager taverns, was unable to attend Wednesday night’s hearing. But he told The Sentinel he remains frustrated with the process and has yet to receive a follow up from the state as promised.
DOT’s categorical exclusion draft, which outlines project logistics on the agency’s website — including property valuations for acquisition at the “fair market rate” — lists Ash’s establishment at $123,800.
In a text message to The Sentinel, Ash said he has no plans yet for a new location for the Jaffrey Lab.
“It’s very hard to find another A-plus location,” Ash wrote. “That very valuable location is hard to find.”
Ultimately, the state has the right to claim Ash’s property under eminent domain if a final price cannot be negotiated, which happens only about 5 percent of the time in cases like this, according to Stephen Labonte with DOT’s Right-of-Way division.
State Reps. Douglas Ley and Richard Ames, both Jaffrey Democrats, stood up in support of the roundabout during Wednesday’s session, citing its economic development potential in conjunction with the construction of the new Park Theatre, which is on track for a spring 2020 opening.
But Keith Dupuis, an excavation contractor and Jaffrey’s assistant fire chief, expressed disappointment with the project.
Dupuis, who also sits on the roundabout project’s advisory committee, said his frustration comes more from what he sees as the over-engineering of the project and potential pedestrian safety concerns.
“The purpose of a roundabout is to flow traffic into town quicker, right?” Dupuis said in an interview. “If you’re making traffic faster, it doesn’t make the downtown safer, as far as I’m concerned.”
On the other side of the argument was Renee Sangermano, Jaffrey’s Parks and Recreation director.
Like many who spoke Wednesday night, Sangermano noted that she was not speaking through her official position, but rather as a Jaffrey resident and — particularly relative to pedestrian safety — a mother of three.
While other residents proposed speed bumps, increased lighting and button-push crossing lights as potential add-ons, Sangermano focused on the engineering logic behind the double roundabout proposal when it comes to how exposed kids would be crossing the street.
“I know for my children that [cross downtown intersections] every day that the current configuration is very intimidating,” Sangermano said. “They know that they have to run in order to get by. They know they have to be on the lookout for people not paying attention while they are driving, and as an adult who also walks and bikes downtown, I feel the same thing.”
Sangermano contrasted her Jaffrey experience with that of walking down Main Street in Keene by both the roundabout near Keene State and the rotary with traffic lights along Central Square.
“What I found there is that with the configuration that has the crosswalks, as laid out in this plan [for the Jaffrey double roundabout], it overall is a much safer presence for pedestrians,” she said. “... When we are talking about pedestrians and getting from a 12-foot space [in the plan] versus 125 feet [currently], that is a huge difference.”