By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — Drivers ran red lights.
They got confused and went the wrong way down a one-way street.
They got caught in traffic jams which made normally brief trips long and frustrating.
Drivers, police and merchants hope yesterday was the worst of the transition from blinking yellow traffic lights in busy Central Square to working lights.
The state put the lights into full operation yesterday, after they were blinking yellow for a month. The lights are part of the state’s $15 million project to rebuild Route 125 in Bradford, including Central Square.
The square received a major face lift during the project, with the addition of the traffic lights and islands to channel cars in new directions. The new lights replaced old ones which had not been working for years.
Central Square is a complex area, where Route 125 (South Main Street) and several side streets meet. Several businesses are also in the square or in complexes just off the square.
Problems start at rush hour
Yesterday morning’s commute was a challenge for drivers passing through the busy area.
About 8 a.m., the southbound traffic was backed up from White’s Corner at the eastern entrance to downtown across the Basiliere Bridge, past Central Square and all the way to Bradford Common. About noon, it was just the opposite, with northbound traffic bogging down in the Bradford Common area and moving at a snail’s pace along South Main Street to Central Square, where the new traffic lights controlled the pace of travel.
Business owners in the square said they haven’t seen such heavy traffic since last year, when the state was rebuilding the square. They say that if the traffic snarls continue, their customers may decide to go elsewhere to shop.
“We had half the usual sales for breakfast and for lunch, and our waitresses are not making much in tips,” said Iva Dionne, a cook at the Village Square Restaurant, 109 S. Main St. “The last month or so things were picking up, then last week it started slowing down and today it’s really bad.”
Police say they expect drivers will become accustomed to the new traffic patterns and signals and that traffic will eventually flow more smoothly as the state tweaks the light sequences.
They also said roadway construction isn’t completed yet, as a finish surface of asphalt is still needed.
Officials with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, or MassDOT, issued a traffic advisory on Tuesday indicating that early yesterday morning the new traffic signals in Central Square would be placed into normal stop-and-go operation. The lights control traffic where Route 125 (South Main Street) meets South Pleasant Street, South Central Street and Ferry Street.
Police say it’s a matter of drivers getting used to the reconfigured square, which included converting a stretch of South Central Street to one-way traffic beginning last month. Police say the redesigned square will make it safer for drivers, and also pedestrians as crosswalks in the square are shorter to cross than they were prior to the changes.
The traffic signals have been operating in flashing mode since May 8, when the portion of South Central Street between Route 125 and South Chestnut Street was permanently restricted to one-way, eastbound traffic, officials said.
Several business owners in Central Square said the redesigned square left them without any on-street parking in front of their businesses, and now the traffic lights pose another challenge.
“I come out of Middlesex Street (near Central Square) every morning to take my children to school, and this morning the traffic was backed up over the bridge,” said Greg Foucault, owner of Foucault Appliance Sales and Service at 113 S. Main St. “It was bumper to bumper and the only time I see this kind of backup is when there’s an accident on the highway or on a slippery winter day.”
Foucault said his sales are down since the state began rebuilding Central Square last year. If yesterday’s traffic backups are any indication of things to come, he said he could wind up having to change his business from sales and service to service only.
“If this continues, people are going to start avoiding the area, which would make things harder than they already are,” he said. “Last year was a very difficult summer for us, and I hope this summer will be better. The square looks beautiful, but if business keeps dropping off, we’ll be doing service only.”
Confusion, frustration continue throughout the day
Some drivers appeared confused yesterday by all the changes. An Eagle-Tribune reporter observed one driver traveling south pass through a red light to make a left turn onto Ferry Street. Another driver exited the now one-way South Central Street onto South Main Street, without realizing she was going the wrong way. Several drivers traveling north and trying to turn left onto South Pleasant Street had to wait for a break in the traffic.
At Recyling I.T., 105 S. Main St., owner Beth Bertoni said she was caught in a traffic jam at White’s Corner and it was because of the traffic signals being activated in Central Square. She said the morning traffic heading south was so heavy that it impacted other businesses in the area.
“When I finally got here and parked my car, I walked down to Heav’nly Donuts and drivers heading north couldn’t get in (the doughnut shop parking lot) because of the backup,” she said.
Bertoni said the loss of parking along the street because of reconstruction forced her husband, Bob Bertoni, to move their Megahertz Computer business to Bradford Plaza on the east side of Central Square where Latitudes Sports Club and Papa Gino’s restaurant are located.
“We’ve been fighting the changes for two years, which is why we moved,” Beth Bertoni said about the redesigned Central Square.
The afternoon commute was bad as well. At about 5:15 p.m., drivers reported being stuck in northbound traffic that stretched from Central Square to Blossom Street.
City Councilor Thomas Sullivan said he drove through the square yesterday about noontime and the traffic heading north was backed up from Central Square to Bradford Common.
“I went to Haverhill Bank and could see the cars were backed up to the common,” he said. “But when I came out it wasn’t backed up as far, but it was backed up to Sacred Hearts School. Someone was nice enough to let me out.
“Clearly they need to come back, and I’m sure they will, to tweak the timing on these signals,” Sullivan said of state transportation officials. “The question is how long will they allow it to go on until they tweak things?”
State: Officials prepared to make timing changes to lights
Michael Verseckes, a spokesman for MassDOT, said the state will continue to monitor the performance of the new traffic signals and will make timing modifications to ensure they are functioning properly.
“This will happen until the timing is adjusted to its proper sequence, which could take up to a few days at most,” Verseckes said.
Lamoille Avenue resident Wes Davis brought his mother and aunt to the Village Square Restaurant for lunch yesterday. He said it usually takes him just a couple of minutes to travel the half-mile down South Main Street to Central Square. Yesterday it took about 10 minutes.
“It was awful,” Davis said. “If this continues, I’ll probably start avoiding the whole thing and go around it using back streets, which will probably get busier.”
Dionne said that in addition to losing parking spaces in front of Village Square Restaurant and in front of Bertone’s business and Foucault’s, the city will no longer allow her to set up a smiley face sign on the sidewalk.
“We lost our parking and now we can’t set up the sign to attract customers,” Dionne said.
Foucault said he asked the mayor’s office to have a “P” sign installed at the corner of South Pleasant Street indicating there is parking behind his building, but he said he has not received any response.
“I’d like to change our back entrance to be like the front entrance, but we’ll need a sign letting people know there is parking out back,” Foucault said.
MassDOT is encouraging drivers to reduce speed, use caution, and adhere to the traffic signal displays when traveling through this busy area.
The traffic lights and renovated square are part of the reconstruction between Route 125 between Boston Road and the Basiliere Bridge over the Merrimack River.