By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — Start your engines — the reconfiguration of downtown traffic is done. And it’s being judged a success, albeit a qualified one by some.
“I’m thrilled with the project,” said Mayor Ted Bettencourt, who instituted the change. “There are still some punch list things to do. But the great majority of the work is done.” To get a sense of how it’s working, the mayor made the rounds on Thursday, visiting about a dozen downtown businesses. “People were very positive. And I talked to people at the (Peabody Institute) Library and they do find it safer crossing the street.”
The four lanes on Main Street dedicated to through traffic have been narrowed to two, with turning lanes constructed in order to minimize delays. For pedestrians, islands have been established in places down the center of the street with the intention of providing a safe haven for those trying to cross an extraordinarily wide roadway. Additionally, sections of the sidewalks have been extended, or bumped out, into the street, again shortening the distance across the road as well as slowing the cars and reducing the chaos that can result from lane switching.
“Someone told me it’s the first time he felt safe crossing the street,” said Bettencourt.
“I think it’s working well,” echoed downtown real estate manager Arthur Gordon. “It’s safer and it’s created a completely different atmosphere. It’s quieter and better. ... It’s everything that we were told it would be.”
City Councilor Dave Gravel, whose business is located in the downtown, added his praise for the way the roadway now deals with the traffic.
Yesterday afternoon, however, traffic heading toward Salem seemed to back up farther down Lowell Street than usual. And some drivers took notice.
“It seems OK so far,” said Kelly Stokes as she parked on Main Street. “I think it’s probably going to be a good thing.” But she conceded that it does seem to take longer to get through the area. “My son-in-law says it’s going to make everything back up and everyone is going to be mad.”
“It’s obviously a mess,” said Bob Almeida, watching a long line of cars pass. But he noted the island stretching down the road and added, “This street has always been a hazard to pedestrians. ... When I was a kid I saw another kid hit by a car in front the Store 24.” The island and the emphasis on shrinking the street, he acknowledged, was needed to bring more safety to a stretch of roadway that over the years has seen several pedestrian accidents, some fatal.
Deanne Healey of the Chamber of Commerce, which is located in the downtown, expressed surprise that drivers have adjusted so quickly to the change. “I think people were expecting at least a couple of weeks of confusion.” Instead, traffic is moving smoothly, she said. Not that it couldn’t be better. “It’s a good thing it’s happening now,” she said of the changeover, “because a lot of the kinks can be worked out before the kids go back to school.”
More signs and better timing for the traffic lights will help, she suggested.
Bricks, fancy light poles and plantings have also contributed to giving the downtown a more elegant cast. “It looks good,” said Healey, adding that she’s heard positive reviews even from people who ordinarily criticize everything.