By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — City Councilors joined a dozen residents at last night’s meeting in blasting the state for ruining the neighborhood behind Bradford’s Central Square, hurting businesses there and creating dangerous conditions for drivers, pedestrians and school children.
At issue was the state’s decision to turn a 500-foot stretch of South Central Street into a one-way road, leading away from the square.
The change, which the council voted three times to oppose before it was implemented in May, has forced people who live on narrow residential streets behind the square to find alternate ways to get to Route 125, flooding the neighborhood with traffic. The new traffic includes dozens of school buses from Coppola Bus company on South Central Street. The buses can no longer use South Central to reach Route 125.
“The school buses have no choice now but to go up our narrow street, where they get stuck idling in traffic,” said Dan Fedock of 58 S. Chestnut St. “It’s a shame the people who live here didn’t get a say in the changes.”
Margie Murphy, 34 S. Chestnut St., said the neighbors had an agreement for many years with the bus company that the buses would stay off the residential roads, but she conceded the buses have no alternative now. Murphy also said the city installed a sign in 1991 prohibiting trucks from the road.
“But the trucks are back,” Murphy said. “An 18-wheeler went by my house at 9:30 last night. Everyone is upset about what’s going on.”
Restricting traffic to one-way on South Central Street was part of the state’s reconstruction of Route 125, which included redesigning and rebuilding Central Square for improved traffic flow.
State officials said keeping South Central Street two ways, once the new traffic lights there was activated, would have caused Route 125 to back up all the way to Salem Street near Bradford Common during peak traffic times in the afternoon.
Neighbors and councilors disagreed. They said the new traffic flow had led to more congestion in and around the square, as well as dangerous driving conditions.
Sandra O’Day, 4 Central Ave., said there’s been at a lot more traffic in the neighborhood since the change.
“I stood here twice before and said this would happen,” O’Day said. “People going to (Basiliere) Bridge are using these small streets as a short cut because the state has messed up the square so bad. But this isn’t a convenience issue, it’s a safety issue.”
Several people voiced concern about what it’s going to be like when Sacred Hearts School at 31 S. Chestnut St. opens next week, and when winter storms choke the already narrow back-roads with snow.
Councilors said they lobbied the state not to change South Central to one-way traffic, but that transportation officials ignored the city’s pleas.
“It’s a poorly planned, poorly designed, poorly constructed project by the state,” Councilor William Ryan said. “And the state isn’t listening to us or doing anything about it.”
Ryan said he expects the situation to get much worse when school starts, both at Sacred Hearts and Haverhill Public Schools.
“More and more people are going to go through this neighborhood to avoid Central Square, which is a mess,” Ryan said, adding that will also hurt the businesses in the square. “It’s disgusting to see how the city and our businesses are being treated by the state. ...We should march on the Statehouse and get the governor out here to see what his transportation people have done to the people of Haverhill.”
Nelson Blinn, the owner of the bus company, said he’s also worried for the safety of children who attend Sacred Hearts School this winter. Blinn said he has already witnessed several accidents since the traffic flow was changed.
“When there are snow banks, it’s going to be much worse,” Blinn said. “Who are people in Boston to say we have to make South Central one way when everyone of us knew this would happen?”
Fred Malcolm, who owns an insurance company in South Central Street, said just about every customer who comes in his business tells him the changes to the traffic flow are ridiculous. Malcolm told councilors that the residents are looking for direction on what to do.
“I will put energy into this fight, but I need guidance on what to do,” he said. “Do you need 750 signatures? What’s it going to take?”
Councilor William Macek said the city will have some control over South Central Street when the state finishes the Route 125 project in November. But he said the state is not likely to allow the city to convert the road back to two ways unless it has traffic data to support doing so.
“The state has data that says if the road is two way or the traffic light is eliminated, the traffic (on Route 125) is going to back up all the way to Salem Street,” Macek said. “We need data to show the change has made conditions and safety worse.”
After the discussion, councilors agreed to ask Mayor James Fiorentini to appoint a committee to develop traffic data and to document problems the new traffic flow has caused. They said they will ask the mayor to contact top state transportation officials and Gov. Deval Patrick to advise them how the changes to Central Square have affected residents and businesses there.
Macek said he wants the state to allow South Central Street to go back to two ways for a short test period, to see if Route 125 backs up like the state’s traffic experts have said it would.
“I’m fairly convinced the nightmare the state predicts, with traffic backing up to Salem Street, won’t happen,” Macek said.
Councilor John Michitson said the council and the neighbors need to get the mayor on their side to have any chance of success.
“In the past, the mayor was not on our side,” Michitson said. “So the state ignored us.”