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Patriots place traffic: Wait till next year

The going isn't too rough, yet, on game days at the retail and entertainment complex near the stadium. But the challenge of managing it will only grow as the site fully opens

(Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)
Email|Print| Text size + By Robert Preer
Globe Correspondent / December 20, 2007

Can 70,000 football fans coexist with several thousand shoppers without causing traffic gridlock? The New England Patriots and Foxborough officials are in the process of finding out.

So far this season, traffic before and after games has been a challenge to fans of the wildly popular National Football League franchise. It's also been a challenge to area residents trying to get home, and to intrepid shoppers trying to get to Bass Pro Shops or one of the other big-box retailers that have just opened at Patriot Place, the shopping and entertainment complex being built in the shadow of Gillette Stadium.

"So far, it has gone reasonably well," the town planner, Marc Resnick, said of this year's traffic management efforts, although he added, "They've only opened a small part of the total development." A State Police spokesman said that, so far, there appears to be no significant impact on traffic from Patriot Place.

But a much bigger test will occur during next year's football season, when the bulk of the 1.3 million-square-foot Patriot Place will open. To the north of the big-box stores will be a 14-screen movie theater, football hall of fame, hotel, office building, medical offices, and an open-air mall with approximately 70 stores and a dozen restaurants.

According to a traffic study prepared last year for the property owner, the Kraft Group, Patriot Place is projected to generate 31,586 additional vehicle trips on an average weekday when it is completed. (A person driving to a store, shopping, and then driving home would be counted as two trips.)

In preparation for the added traffic, the Kraft organization has had Route 1 widened in front of the stadium, added turning lanes, constructed or improved three driveways on the stadium property, and built new parking lots on the other side of Route 1 to replace parking lost to the commercial development.

Vanasse & Associates, the Kraft Group's traffic consultants, projected that most Patriot Place visitors on game days will be people at the site anyway for football games. The predictable traffic jams on Route 1 will scare most shoppers away, at least until after the game starts, according to the consultants.

"Under major-event conditions," the traffic study concluded, "traffic volumes associated with the project are expected to be significantly reduced [approximately 50 percent or more] over non-event conditions, as the majority of customers . . . will be event patrons."

State Senator James E. Timilty, a Walpole Democrat who represents Foxborough, agreed with that analysis. "I think most people will certainly learn, as the residents of Foxborough and surrounding towns have learned, that you better know when a game is," he said.

To ease traffic jams, the Patriots organization has decided to close the movie theater to the public on game days. The office building and medical offices are not expected to draw much traffic during games, as most games are played on Sundays or at night.

So far, so good, said Foxborough Police Chief Edward T. O'Leary, interviewed after the Patriots' late Sunday afternoon game against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week.

"I thought things went pretty well," O'Leary said. "The crowd arrived early. Traffic was steady."

Greg Speir of Foxborough, owner of a satellite parking lot near the stadium, said traffic has been heavy before games, but has cleared by game time. "If the game starts and people aren't parked," he said, "that's when you have a problem."

For Sunday's 1 p.m. game against the New York Jets, pregame traffic backups were substantial, although officials attributed them mainly to the snowstorm that eventually changed to sleet and rain. Before the game, at least one lane on Route 1 had to be closed for snow removal, according to O'Leary.

Stacey James, spokesman for the Patriots, said that it takes time for patrons to adjust to new parking and traffic patterns. Some fans are so used to parking on the stadium side of the road that they go out of their way and contribute to congestion rather than go to the new lots on the other side of Route 1, James said.

The new shopping and entertainment venues that are to open next year will make Patriot Place one of the largest commercial developments in Southeastern Massachusetts.

James said the attractions at Patriot Place will give football fans things to do before and after games and should spread out the traffic over a longer period. The Patriots are among a small but growing number of professional sports teams across the country trying to make their playing venues year-round destinations.

Jim Grinstead, editor of the Nashville-based newsletter Revenues from Sports Venues, said managing traffic at such multipurpose destinations is not simple. "It can be done, but it takes some planning," Grinstead said. "Often it takes a while, learning the times when people arrive for events. A lot of people are trying to push the use of mass transit."

Mass transit is a limited option. The only regularly scheduled public transportation to the stadium is single, round-trip train service from Boston and Providence on NFL game days. The state Executive Office of Transportation has studied expanding rail service to Foxborough but rated it low on its list of priorities. There are no plans to expand train service to Foxborough, according to Erik Abell, a spokesman for the agency.

Most of the road improvements for Patriot Place have been completed. In the next year, sidewalks are to be built on North Street, and some local intersections away from Route 1 are to be rebuilt.

A big concern in Foxborough and neighboring towns is that drivers bound for Patriot Place and the stadium will use local roads as shortcuts.

Patriot Place and Gillette Stadium are not the only developments adding traffic to area roads. Population growth throughout Southeastern Massachusetts is increasing pressure on the roadways.

Mansfield Crossing, a shopping center on Route 140, opened this year. On the drawing boards are the Westwood Station and Legacy Place projects on Route 128, Sharon Commons off I-95, and an expansion of the Walpole Mall on Route 1.

The state is about to undertake a $500,000 study of traffic and development pressures on the Route 1 and I-95 corridors from the Rhode Island border to Route 128.

Robert Preer can be reached at preer@globe.com.

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