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'Recipe for disaster'

Charlton chief voices RMV concerns

The former visitor center to which the Registry plans to move the Southbridge office. It’s close to the west end of the rest area’s entry ramp off the Mass Pike. Gus Steeves. (click for larger version)

James Pervier (click for larger version)
July 22, 2009
If the state had called Charlton Police Chief James Pervier about the Registry's plan to move its office to the Mass Pike, officials would have recieved an earful of very clear advice. But they never called.

"It's a recipe for disaster if they don't make some major modifications," he said. "… [That location] takes care of itself for the size that it is, but throw the Registry in the mix and it's not designed for that."

Pervier said he's referring to a host of different but related concerns surrounding the proposal to shift the office from Southbridge to the former visitor center in the Pike's eastbound rest area. To him, the extra daily traffic there will need a variety of changes, including turning lanes on both directions of Route 20, several safety changes within the rest area, sidewalks, and possibly even a traffic light or a whole new entrance farther west off Route 20. Combined, those are likely to be expensive, but he couldn't estimate how expensive because signals alone depend "on the complexity of the location."

"The state owes it to the safety of the residents to give us the proper egress to obtain those services," he said. "We would be better to go to Worcester than to put it there."

Registry spokesman Ann Dufresne said the agency is compiling a report on what's needed to make the move that will include "traffic and pedestrian mitigation," due out next week.

As it now stands, Registry customers would have to either use the Pike itself for access or park in the plaza's employee lot off Route 20 and take a fairly long walk across most of the rest area to get there. Pervier noted doing so would be unpleasant in the rain, carrying documents, and could be dangerous for seniors, the handicapped and/or in winter.

And that's inside the rest area. Getting there means going through growing traffic. Exactly how much is unclear, since even Central Mass Regional Planning Commission hasn't done a traffic count near there since Aug. 1992. It's Dec. 2008 Traffic Count Book reported there were 12,083 vehicles per day at the Sturbridge town line then; the nearest more recent data showed 27,012 per day "east of Route 169" in July 1997.

If the 2008 Charlton Master Plan proves prescient, those are likely to grow. The plan calls for making Route 20 the town's major road for industrial and commercial development and specifically recommends controlling traffic elsewhere "by clustering heavy traffic generators where they can be served by existing major roadways, such as Route 20."

Furthermore, it states, "Excessive speeds were identified as an issue along Route 20, which presents a safety issue." In that stretch, there are relatively few buildings or intersections, so drivers tend to accelerate more than along more populated stretches farther east, and the base speed limit is higher.

Pervier said he's not aware of any accident data for that specific location, but the nearby curve has them fairly often. He predicted, however, that putting the Registry there would promote accidents, particularly people being rear-ended as they wait for a chance to turn into the driveway.

"They'll have a serious number of people coming and going, and that's where you're going to have a lot of problems," he said. "… Could the location be made [safe]? Probably. But how much would the state have to invest to get it up to par? It might make more sense just to continue renting."

Dufresne said the building itself only needs locks and a security system.

She said the agency chose it because it was "available, accessible and rent-free from our sister transportation agencies." After saying the Registry had looked at other area sites, she admitted it had considered "probably just Charlton because it'd be the only one available."

She said they checked with the Division of Capital Asset Management, which told them no state facilities were open near Southbridge, so the Registry had to find this site on its own. In fact, DCAM's Web site only lists two sites currently available for lease — one in Hingham, the other, Worcester — and its map of state assets in the Southwest Worcester region is predominantly parks and related open space. That map, however, doesn't even note the existence of the current Registry office or the Mass Pike rest areas.

"If we don't open in Charlton, we'll just close Southbridge and won't have an office in that area," Dufresne said, noting the Legislature cut the agency's budget.

The state budgets $69,362 a year in operating costs (rent and utilities) for Southbridge's facility today, but she said that doesn't include payroll. She did not know how much payroll came to because there's no central list for each office.

"Operating costs were just one of the factors," she said. "We also considered geography, the type of customers going there and other issues in making our decision. … Southbridge was originally slated to close, but when we saw how many we were closing, we tried to find mitigation branches" to continue services nearby.

Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at gsteeves@stonebridgepress.com.

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