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Ayer Road renovations: repaving, expanded shoulders, no traffic calming

TEC engineers and town officials have presented the most up-to-date designs of the Ayer Road repaving project and solicited public feedback. More than 40 citizens attended a June 22 Zoom conference, where they made their opinions known to engineers John Rockwell and Lori Aho, Planning Board Chair Erin McBee, Department of Public Works Director Tim Kilhart, and Director of Community and Economic Development Chris Ryan.

Aho presented the current design, which is at the 10% completion stage. It is estimated to cost approximately $6 million, but TIP (Transportation Improvement Project) grants administered by MassDOT (the state’s department of transportation) would cover everything except acquiring a new right-of-way and $375,000 in engineering work. The repaving would start at the Ayer town line and extend to a point between Dunkin’ Donuts and the Route 2 interchange. The grant would cover the repaving of Ayer Road, a large, overdue, routine maintenance item estimated to cost over $1 million. It would adjust the road width to a uniform 30 feet, with 11-foot travel lanes and 4-foot shoulders. It would install a 10-foot-wide pedestrian and bicycle path set back several feet from the road, running along the road’s west side—the side with the post office.

The plan calls for significant changes to the area around the post office. The proposed walking and bike path mostly runs along Ayer Road, but passes behind the post office along the east side of Gebo Lane and Lancaster County Road, before returning to Ayer Road for its remaining length. The Lancaster County Road intersection (immediately north of the post office) would be closed to regular car traffic. To move between Ayer Road and Lancaster County Road, cars would need to take Gebo Lane, which intersects Ayer Road directly south of the post office. Two pedestrian crosswalks with signal devices would be installed, one near the Ayer town line and one near the Dunkin’ Donuts driveway. The project would also seek to move all the utility poles to a single side of the road.

‘Urban arterial’ doesn’t qualify for traffic calming measures

The biggest topic of concern for the attendees was whether the project could reduce traffic speeds along the road, which many felt are currently too fast. Aho explained that many of the project’s design decisions were forced by MassDOT mandates. According to recent traffic studies, approximately 14,000 vehicles travel the road each day, about 4% of them trucks. The 85th percentile speed along the road is 40 mph, meaning that 85% of cars travel 40 mph or slower, while 15% travel 40 mph or faster. According to Aho, these statistics qualify the road as an urban arterial, which requires the proposed lane and shoulder widths as a minimum, making requests to narrow the road impossible to fulfill. MassDOT supports the use of a traffic light or traffic circle at intersections only where there is heavy traffic along both of the roads, and none of the roads intersecting Ayer Road qualifies.

Are turning lanes a good idea?

Attendees also requested that the project ease the difficulty of making left turns onto or off the road, especially at the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot. To this end, they suggested that the road feature a turning lane at several points along its length. TEC engineers appeared skeptical about the proposal, questioning whether any of the turns had sufficient volume to warrant such a lane. However, they did not dismiss it outright and agreed to look into the possibility further. Select Board member Lucy Wallace also questioned whether it would be safe to have both a turning lane and a crosswalk in front of the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot.

Some audience members questioned how the project would address the two bridges over Bowers Brook, near the post office, which are in poor repair. Kilhart explained that the bridge along Ayer Road falls under state jurisdiction, so the project would not alter it. He assured attendees that it is on a state list for upcoming inspection. The other bridge, along Lancaster County Road, falls under Harvard’s jurisdiction. However, because the proposed plan would close that section of Lancaster County Road to regular car traffic, the bridge would not need repairs to handle the pedestrian and bicycle traffic still crossing it.

Water and sewer not part of the project

Other residents asked whether it would be possible to use the project as an opportunity to install water and sewer utilities along the road. Kilhart responded that TIP funding would not cover the installation of utilities, and that Harvard does not currently have any source of water or sewer to which it would be reasonable to attach this section of Ayer Road. McBee added that it is the view of the Planning Board that Ayer Road should have its zoning bylaws updated before upgrading its utilities.

Aho laid out the expected timeline of the project over the next year: TEC will adjust the current plan based on feedback from this meeting and will present the updated design to the Select Board in the near future. The Select Board will make its own alterations and be responsible for final approval of the 10% design plan. TEC will then bring the engineering work to the 25% level by the fall of 2020, at which point MassDOT will review it. The review process will take approximately three months, after which TEC will hold a formal public hearing for Harvard residents, likely during the winter of 2020 to 2021.

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