Editorial: Loudon Road change is worth a try
The devil drivers know, Loudon Road, has long been causing too much mischief. After two decades of debate, the Concord City Council was right to gamble on a radical change: reducing the four-lane shopping strip road to two lanes plus a center turning lane.
The trepidation expressed by many Heights residents is understandable. The four-lane road from Hazen Drive to Walmart is nearly bumper to bumper at peak travel times. That makes it almost impossible to imagine the new configuration will actually bring the smooth, steady flow of traffic depicted in the engineer’s simulations on the city website. But in the interest of safety, the experiment is justified.
For the large percentage of us who are in a predictable if unnecessary hurry, navigating Loudon Road is a bit like driving a NASCAR race or competing in a boardercross snowboarding event. The key to speed is leaving the right lane when the left is open, anticipating when a driver up the line is going to block the lane by turning left, and cutting back into the right lane when an opening presents itself. The weaving and jockeying causes timid drivers to avoid the road, to the detriment of the businesses that line it. The aggressive and inattentive drivers cause accidents. If they time it wrong, so do motorists who attempt the daunting task of turning left across three lanes of traffic. Making a left turn onto Loudon Road can be so frustrating that many motorists opt to turn right, get into the left lane when they can, and then pull a U-turn using a driveway on the other side of the road. That’s hardly ideal.
Loudon Road, with a traffic count in excess of 20,000 vehicles per day, has one of the highest accident rates of any thoroughfare in New Hampshire. There were 214 crashes in 2011, with 47 of them resulting in injuries. Traffic signals, crossing guards to assist children, and other improvements have made the road a wee bit safer, but it still accounts for one-fifth of the city’s accidents, or about 100 per year. As Candace Bouchard, a councilor representing the Heights has said publicly, the road is failing. Its high accident rate qualified it for a federal Highway Safety Improvement grant that will pay $1.44 million toward the cost of repaving and reconfiguring the road and, when possible, consolidating some driveways. To that, the city will have to add $160,000.
The repaved road will be re-striped to create one travel lane in each direction with a wider central turning lane used by cars going in either direction. A 5-foot shoulder between the travel lane and curb should provide safe passage for cyclists. The drop from four lanes to three, based on similar changes made in other cities, is expected to slow speeds on the roads slightly and result in a 25 percent reduction in the accident rate.
Confidence in computer simulations and consultant estimates of late has been rattled by the giant gulf between the city’s estimate of the cost of the Main Street renovation project and contractor estimates to carry out the work. In the case of Loudon Road, however, the city’s share of the cost is minor and, should the proposed lane changes create traffic jams or otherwise fail to work as expected, the remedy will be relatively cheap and easy. Simply re-stripe the road to make it four lanes again and go back to the drawing board.
Our bet, however, is that the three-lane solution will prove to be a pleasant, and safer, surprise.