Improvements help, but traffic still a problem on race weekend in and around Loudon
Road closures, detours and traffic gridlock have been a part of race weekend since the first Winston Cup rolled into town in 1993.
The immense popularity of the sport combines with Sunday afternoon Lakes Region traffic to grind some local highways to a halt.
“That first race was just a disaster. We were out here until after midnight,” said Loudon police Chief Robert Fiske. “I don’t think we could get it any better than we’ve got it now. We’ve taken our lumps here and there, but we’ve gotten through it.”
Traffic counts on an average Sunday in July have about 14,000 cars crossing the Concord town line on Route 106, the same road that carries about 18,900 cars on an average weekday. The number balloons to almost 38,000 on race day, according to the state Department of Tranportation. After the race most of these cars funnel south on Route 106, a two-lane road that runs from Concord to the Lakes Region. The impact is felt nowhere more than in Loudon, the host community with less than 6,000 people. “There are still some people who get frustrated, but it’s two weekends out of the year,” said Loudon selectmen Chairman Steven Ives.
After the first race, a group of stakeholders agreed to meet monthly. The committee including town and state officials continually reviews what did or didn’t work in handling the traffic. “It started when they had the first big races. The amount of traffic they saw in that area was crazy,” said Trent Zanes of the DOT’s Highway Design Bureau.
The long process has prompted tangible improvements for travelers, Fiske said.
The DOT’s “borrow a lane” idea has helped post-race traffic on Interstate 93 south. For about six hours after the race, travelers approaching Exit 15 from the north can cross over the paved median and drive south in a “borrowed” northbound lane, essentially creating an express lane to the Hooksett toll plaza for southbound nonrace traffic. “There’s a lot of heavy nonrace traffic heading south on 93, too. At the same time, northbound traffic is very light,” Zanes said.
On Sunday, the borrowed lane will be open from approximately 4 to 10 p.m. No exits will be available from the borrowed lane through Concord, and southbound I-93 traffic destined for Interstate 89 must remain on the usual two southbound lanes and not use a borrowed lane.
Speedway abutters receive notifications with the time and date of the race, as well as the expected peak traffic times, lane closures and traffic changes. Shoulder widths on both sides of Route 106 have been increased to 11 feet, and former speedway owner Bob Bahre paid to widen Exit 15 on I-93 from one lane to two. The changes on shoulder widths are important, Fiske said, because it allows the safe use of Route 106 as a four-lane road when traffic is at its heaviest. “We needed that 11-foot corridor to move traffic safely. It’s still a little crimped at the spots where there are guardrails. It has worked and fortunately for us there has not been a major mishap,” Fiske said.
Planning and improvements have eased some of the traffic pressure, but the easiest way for locals to avoid the headache is to remember it is race weekend.
“Everybody has their personal plan,” said Ives. “People in town know to stay off (Route) 106 and use the back roads. Some people who are leaving the racetrack are veterans now and know how to get out of there quicker.”
Concord resident Ryan Young has no problem with the speedway and appreciates the traffic-calming measures, but the ripple effect can be unavoidable. “Last year we went sailing at Squam Lake on race day. It was probably our fault for not being tuned in, but it was an absolute nightmare trying to get back,” Young said. Race weekend this year falls on his moving day – his relatives are visiting to help him move from downtown to East Concord. He’ll probably seek an alternate route to avoid I-93, and has told his family they may need to leave earlier or stay later than expected, he said. “Between 3 and 5 Sunday would be the time they’d be getting ready on the road. It’s not going to be prudent for them to do that, so we’ll have to rearrange our day,” he said.
The traffic pattern changes begin early Sunday. From 5 to 11 a.m., Exit 14 on I-93 north will be closed. The exit will close again between 3:30 and 10:30 p.m. Sunday, along with Exit 15 eastbound on I-93.
The heaviest changes come after the race. “The traffic is pretty spread out as everybody is approaching the track. It peaks around 9 o’clock in the morning,” Zanes said. “Once the race is over, everyone is trying to get out of there.”
More than 100 law enforcement officers from across the state will assist in public safety and traffic. All intersections with Route 106 in Loudon will be closed, and all traffic signals will be set to blinking lights.
In Concord, officers are posted at spots on Interstate 393 and also along Route 106. In addition to the main routes, the Concord police said they see an increase in traffic – and speeding – from fans trying to circumvent traffic via Loudon Road.“We occasionally have issues with traffic trying to flow around the choke points. We’re familiar with the geography and people cutting down Loudon Road,” said Lt. Timothy O’Malley.
(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or email@example.com.)