MIDDLESEX - In a no-holds-barred traffic analysis, consultants looking to improve connectivity between downtown Reading and the shores of Lake Quannapowitt explored everything from adding new bike lanes and roundabouts to realigning major intersections by Route 28 through land takings.
During a recent virtual hearing led by Reading’s Assistant Town Manager Jean Delios, representatives from Westford-based engineering firm Green International Affiliates unveiled a menu of roadway improvements and traffic fixes that could be instituted along Walkers Brook Drive and other key corridors stretching between Reading Center and the town’s boundary with Wakefield by I-95.
Though the consultants’ expansive list of solutions is almost certain to cost tens of millions of dollars to implement, Delios explained the global traffic study was commissioned to establish a comprehensive plan for minimizing vehicular congestion in residential neighborhoods while simultaneously improving the connectivity between the town’s two largest commercial hubs.
“We’re calling it a Walkers Brook [analysis], but it goes well beyond that,” said Delios, referring to the four-lane road that leads to Jordan’s Furniture and Home Depot, nearby office buildings, and recreational opportunities by Lake Quannapowitt. “The comment we heard loud and clear was that we should be looking at these area intersections comprehensively. This is really just a starting-point for approving further study, design, and infrastructure improvements.”
Though the overall analysis goals of reducing traffic congestion and improving access from the downtown area to Lake Quannapowitt might sound antithetical to one another, Green International representatives Wing Wong and Jason Sobel argued both objectives can be achieved.
According to Wong, the lead study consultant, based upon the analysis, finalized after 2019 traffic counts were conducted, the overall plan focuses on four general components:
• Improving Walkers Brook Drive by adding a roundabout or traffic signal by the housing development and Market Basket, new turning lanes to reduce car accidents, and bike and pedestrian walkways;
• Addressing cut-through traffic on John Street by discouraging vehicular movements during rush-hour;
• Fixing downstream issues on Washington Street by adding roadway markings for cyclists and new turning lanes by Route 28;
• And improving downtown traffic flows by Main and Ash Street by realigning the entire roadway near a MBTA commuter-rail stop, Bolton Street, and the site of Burger King, Jiffy Lube, and a popular car wash.
According to Wong, his company began its analysis after being retained to study traffic patterns around Walkers Brook Drive during the height of the town’s deliberations over the Eaton Lakeview project by John Street and the Jordan’s Furniture site.
Pitched in the spring of 2017 and approved by Reading’s Zoning Board of Appeals in the winter of 2019, the 86-unit apartment and townhouse project generated quite a bit of traffic-related controversy as neighbors complained about pre-existing problems with commuter-hour congestion and safety issues along the larger traffic corridor.
Neighbors also underscored the importance of the commercial zone, which is also home to a number of restaurants and separate grocery store plazas for Market Basket and Stop & Shop.
“We’ve identified quite a bit of mitigation that could have a profound impact on the Walkers Brook Drive intersection, but the term that’s been thrown is for us to take a holistic approach to the study area,” said Wong.
Walkers Brook Drive
A four-lane road situated between I-95 and residential neighborhoods past the Market Basket store on what becomes Washington Street, Walkers Brook Drive processes more than 24,000 vehicles everyday.
According to the Green International consultants, though it sounds counterintuitive, they believe traffic could be improved by slowing down motorists to allow for turning movements into the various nearby office parks and retail sites.
Wong also contended that roadway needed better access for pedestrians and cyclists, who are likely being discouraged from heading towards the retail shopping zone due to accessibility issues.
Under one potential fix, a so-called “road diet” could be completed that creates two traffic lanes with a middle turning lane. Wide bike lanes with a barrier could also be added. However, due to the high volumes of commuters on Walkers Brook Drive, traffic congestion would become more commonplace.
“With this option, it will increase traffic congestion,” the lead traffic study engineer cautioned. “This road carries about 24,000 cars per day and that’s near the upper-threshold for a roadway that should be considered for a road diet.”
Instead of the road diet, the construction of a so-called shared-use pathway for cyclists and motorists could be added to the south side — or Market Basket and Stop & Shop side of the corridor.
Under that scenario, the study team recommended that the middle two travel lanes be reserved for turning motorists by key site driveways and intersections.
“The advantages are greater because pedestrians and bicycles are off the road and away from traffic, but we would still allow for efficient vehicular flow similar to today. There are also opportunities for streetscaping the buffer between the road and [the shared-use path for pedestrians and cyclists].”
The second major component of the Walkers Brook Drive fix involves the preferable addition of a roundabout near the entryway into Market Basket, the new housing complex, and the Salem Five bank branch.
The traffic circle, which should reduce vehicular conflicts from turning movements in and out of several site driveways, would involve private land takings or the extension of permanent easement rights.
Under a less preferable but more inexpensive fix, a second traffic signal could be added beyond the Market Basket driveway by John Street and the Lakeview Avenue.
Downtown Reading improvements
According to Sobel, due to the existing layout of Washington Street between Walkers Brook Drive and Main Street, little could be feasibility done to improve traffic flow in the way of street widening.
Because extensive land takings would be needed to create dedicated bicycle lanes, the traffic consultant instead recommended the addition of road markings to notify motorists that the corridor is meant to be shared with cyclists.
However, much more extensive improvements are proposed for Washington Street by Main Street and by Route 28’s nexus with Ash Street.
According to Sobel, based upon accident data, both intersections are the frequent site of rear-end and angled collisions, a phenomenon being attributed to the lack of turning lanes and the presence of various private driveways and access points.
“There’s no designated left-hand turning lanes on either approach and all left-hand turners have to yield to oncoming vehicles,” opined the consultant, who suggested turning restrictions on Washington Street force motorists to stop short or dart across oncoming traffic during rush hour.
On Washington Street by Main Street, the Westford firm contends, safety could be vastly improved by adding left-hand turning lanes at all four approaches. For those heading towards Ash Street, the study team recommends the addition of a left-hand turning land, a through-lane, and a combination through/right turn lane.
“On Main Street, the northbound movement during the evening peak is particularly heavy. I think there’s about 1,200 cars [heading through there during those hours],” said Sobel.
In another substantial investment, the study team also proposed a major realignment of Ash Street by Main Street to limit conflicts between pedestrians, MBTA commuter-rail users, and motorists heading into the intersection from multiple site driveways.
With an unrestrained budget, the fix would entail the construction of a roundabout nearby the current sites of Jiffy Lube and Burger King.
Either one or both properties would need to be taken under two of the roundabout options presented, while under a third option, Ash Street would be realigned by diverting the roadway away from Bolton Street and onto a new pathway to Main.
“The town has shared a vision for what they want to see on Ash Street and by New Crossings Road. When that does happen, Main Street and Ash Street will become an even greater problem,” Wong remarked.