Rotary plan to be sent for review

Signals seen as key to unsnarling traffic

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / April 23, 2009
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An often snarled and dangerous section of the coastal corridor south of Boston could become far more user-friendly by the end of next year, when the old Hingham rotary on Route 3A is projected to be replaced by a $2.5 million intersection with traffic signals.

Hingham selectmen last week unanimously voted to take the next step toward removing the rotary near the town harbor by submitting a "project needs plan" to the state Highway Department for review and refinement of the road design.

Accompanying the application will be data and public comments supporting the need for a change.

Jeff Dirk, a traffic engineer with Vanasse and Associates, a firm hired by the town, said getting rid of the rotary would improve traffic conditions for the entire region, not just Hingham. He said the project, which needs state approval, could be underway by next spring and completed by the end of that calendar year.

The rotary, built in the 1930s when there were far fewer vehicles on the road, has long been the scene of traffic snarls, as well as accidents. It channels 30,000 motorists a day to three legs: west to Quincy, east to Cohasset and Scituate, and north to Hull. The circle also accommodates traffic from Hingham's busy downtown and the nearby MBTA station.

During summer, congestion in the rotary is even worse, as tourists swell the daily number of cars to 40,000, said Dirk, whose firm was hired to study the problem and come up with a solution.

"A traffic circle just can't process that volume," he said.

Hingham selectmen chairwoman Laura Burns said the rotary has been a longtime concern. "This is the most dangerous intersection in town," she said.

Members of the local master plan committee agree with Burns, and have characterized the rotary stretch as "the most accident-prone roadway feature" in the town.

Motorists currently travel at a snail's pace as they approach and enter the rotary, and fender-benders abound. Rear-end collisions are the most common, and side-swiping occurs in the rotary itself, when drivers erroneously assume the relatively wide road area in the circle must be two lanes.

"We looked at a three-year time period, from 2005 to 2007," Dirk said. "Sixty crashes happened in the circle or within 250 feet of it."

Dirk said there are three ways to replace the rotary. Installing traffic lights in a T-shaped intersection, along with some yield signs for right turns, was the choice preferred by officials, businesses, and residents in the area, as well as Dirk himself.

"You could have a grade separation like the road to the Cape, but there isn't much land there since it's on the harbor," Dirk said. "Or you could have a modern roundabout that is smaller than a rotary."

In the traffic light plan, the major roadways would include two lanes in either direction passing through the intersection. There would also be dedicated left-turn lanes.

"It's designed for a 20-year life span, and it has the capacity to go even beyond that," Dirk said.

Hingham officials, looking for a safer way to get foot traffic from the downtown to the harbor and beach on the other side of the rotary, asked that a pedestrian footbridge be added to the plan. Vanasse estimates that would cost about $300,000, pushing the total cost of the changes to $2.8 million. It would be up to MassHighway to come up with the funding mechanism for the job, which could be done with federal stimulus money.

Officials said the improvements would take care of a regional headache.

"The rotary connects to Hull, Scituate, and Cohasset," Dirk said. "It serves the whole region."

Hull public safety officials were consulted by Dirk during the study, since Hull relies on the Route 3A corridor and the rotary to get its ambulances from town to the South Shore Hospital in Weymouth.

"Any time we have to take a patient around the rotary, it's a concern," said Hull Deputy Fire Chief Chris Russo. The trip is slow and dangerous, and "in the mornings and late afternoons, it gets pretty precarious for emergency services." A signalized traffic system would be programmed to allow emergency vehicles to override it to get quickly through, Russo added.

Burns predicts travel may be a bit of a headache for drivers next year, if construction does begin.

"I think it's going to be difficult, but after so many years of construction in town for the Greenbush [commuter rail] line, we're used to it here in Hingham," she said. "I don't know about drivers from the other towns."

Dirk said access through the rotary area would be maintained throughout construction.

Cohasset selectmen chairman Paul Carlson said area towns are just learning of the plan. "We have not discussed the rotary work yet, but it won't affect our public safety services," he said.

Carlson added his board will be closely following the project as designs unfold. "If it becomes an issue for our town, we'll take a stand," he said.

James Gallagher, senior transportation planner for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, called the timetable Dirk has laid out for the project "very aggressive."

"I would say it's a couple of years away at least," he said. "They're at the first step of the design phase. There's quite a bit more work to do."

Once the design is complete, the project could be added to the planning agency's Transportation Improvement Plan, which would qualify it for federal transportation funds in the stimulus package, Gallagher said.

Scituate selectmen chairman Richard Murray said he thinks the rotary is better than a traffic signal system. "And I go through it every day," he said.

Christine Legere can be reached at