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EDITORIAL: Thinking big was a big mistake


JUST WHEN YOU THINK big government has gone off the deep end, ignoring the public and rejecting common sense, somebody somewhere on the inside wakes up and says, hey, wait a minute, maybe we’re on the wrong track here. Mostly this happens in movies for pre-schoolers, but it can happen in real life too.

Skim this paragraph if you’ve followed the tale of the Big Bad DOT versus the plucky little Village of Chatham. But for those who missed it, our story began once upon a time not so long ago when the state Department of Transportation and the railroad company CSX concluded that the intersection of Main Street and state Route 295 at the heart of the community was too dangerous. The state had just spent a whole lot of money trying to improve the intersection, but CSX employees got worried because drivers were stopping on the tracks while waiting to turn from Main Street onto Route 295.


Last fall the DOT proposed what could charitably be called the nuclear option as the best way to address the safety concerns of CSX. The agency proposed spending a million dollars to install a complex system of traffic lights that would have snarled traffic and probably led the public to shun the center of the village. And in case village residents didn’t appreciate that option, the DOT generously offered an alternative: For the very same million dollars, the agency would instead block off one end of Main Street and reroute traffic over a brand new road.

The village was having none of it. Led by the mayor with the support of the business community and residents, citizens reached out to elected officials. This pressure from the public and politicians appears to have worked. The DOT returned recently with what seemed like an entirely reasonable alternative–a couple of stop signs. That’s all. Agency officials haven’t said what the signs will cost, but let’s hope the tab comes to less than a million dollars.

This story didn’t end with the DOT’s remarkable turnaround. The mayor says that the village doesn’t need more stop signs at different locations, as the DOT has proposed. The mayor says the village needs more prominent signs where signs already exist. He and others say many motorists drive through the intersection without stopping. I’ve seen drivers too busy texting or talking on their cell phones to notice the signs. (Hint to the clueless: both texting and talking on your handheld phone are illegal activities while driving.) Some people don’t see the sign because all they’re thinking about is getting through the intersection alive.

An average of 9,000 vehicles travel the highway at the center of this small village every day. The intersection, which is at least 150 years old, cannot handle a smooth, rapid flow of traffic when the volume is so high. When the state tried to fuss with the intersection it only made conditions worse. Then came the overkill suggestions for traffic lights or worse.

Finally the DOT has got the scale right by proposing a solution that matches the scope of the problem. But this minimalist approach still doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.

Big institutions like the Department of Transportation always look for Big Solutions. It takes a lot of effort and determination to upend that big-solution culture and persuade people inside the institution to think small. In that regard, everybody involved in this process deserves praise, especially the DOT staff, for showing flexibility and a willingness to listen. The trick now is figuring out how this new spirit of cooperation can lead to mutually acceptable actions that improve safety at the intersection.

One thing that would help is for the DOT to explain why the agency insisted on lights one moment and then suddenly concluded that stop signs would do the job instead. What data and judgments went into that decision? What standards apply? Moreover, what changes will satisfy the concerns of CSX? All of this information should be made public before a final plan is adopted. Knowing what went into the state’s calculations is not about credit or blame; it’s about the future.

Traffic moves slowly in Chatham. This village isn’t the open road. There are other routes if you’re in a hurry. The goal shouldn’t be to get people through the village faster. The goal is to use the simplest measures possible to keep everyone safe while they’re here.

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