By Angeljean Chiaramida
---- — SEABROOK — The full court press employed by officials in hopes of getting the state Department of Transportation to move up the schedule to widen an integral portion of Route 1 appears to be working, but not as well as they hoped.
When originally announced in 2012, NHDOT cited a 2015 construction date for roadwork that would widen about 2,000 feet of Route 1 southbound, from about 400 feet south of the Route 1/107 intersection at BP Gas Station to Dunkin’ Donuts.
That stretch of road is a bottleneck that snarls traffic daily and has caused frequent accidents and road rage incidents. The road project that will add one lane to the west side of the road was part of the agreement the state made with the town to end a lawsuit and get Planning Board approval of the new shopping center currently under construction at the Route 1/107 intersection with Provident Way.
The town insisted the road be widened before approving the mall to lessen the anticipated gridlock when hundreds of thousands of feet of new retail space opens this summer at the shopping center. Proposed by Ohio developer DDR and expected to draw an additional 1,700 to 2,100 cars per hour to Seabrook roads, the outlet was allowed nearly 500,000 square feet of new business. If completed at that size, it will be the largest shopping in the greater Newburyport area, projected to draw thousands of shoppers daily from Massachusetts.
At November’s meeting on the project with DOT representatives in Seabrook, however, local officials were shocked to learn the agency’s intent was to push the construction date to 2017. Selectmen and the Planning Board vigorously objected to the postponement, as did Seabrook’s state Sen. Nancy Stiles and Executive Councillor Chris Sununu and area business owners.
The result of the pressure came in a Dec. 30 letter to Planning Board chairman Donald Hawkins stating DOT will try to move the project up one year to 2016, if all goes smoothly. In her letter to Hawkins, DOT project manager and engineer Victoria Chase explained the delay was due to the complex nature of obtaining the needed right-of-way on the road to obtain the room to allow the additional lane. But the advance depends on reaching swift and “amicable settlements with affected (property) owners” of land needed to add the extra lane, Chase cautioned.
“The most time-consuming part of the process is securing the needed property rights and right of way,” Chase wrote. “The impacts to commercial property, and the necessary acquisitions can take time. There will be complicated appraisals, title intricacies, and complex interest holder relationships.”
However, since the project is part of a legal agreement that’s been on the book for years and wrapped around heavy influx of traffic expected by the summer of 2014 on an already congested roadway, many in town wonder why, if the process is so complex, DOT staffers didn’t plan better and get started earlier to meet the region’s needs.
Traffic on the New Hampshire Seacoast corridor of Route 1 is second only to Interstate 95 in the region, especially during the summer tourist months.
At Tuesday night’s Planning Board meeting, Hawkins expressed a modest degree of appreciation to DOT for its willingness to try to move things up by a year, but noted that will still make it a year late as far as Seabrook is concerned.
Currently awaiting approval before the Planning Board are plans for another new 168,000-square-foot Route 1 shopping center in the same vicinity proposed by Seabrook businessman Arleigh Greene, which is expected to bring another 513 to 791 new vehicles per hour to the road during peak weekday/weekend shopping hours exactly where the widening project is planned.
Although Greene has included traffic mitigation efforts to accommodate the additional cars, Hawkins has said that the state’s failure to proceed as expected with a 2015 construction date on the widening project will impact how the board handles this new retail outlet, to be located near Bob’s Furniture. Hawkins said in its approval considerations, the Planning Board will have to consider when the town should allow developer Greene to build in relation to when the state widens the road.
“The hardest decision we’re likely to have here is timing,” Hawkins has said.
Dismayed by the state’s delay, Greene said he isn’t satisfied with a 2016 construction date, but will continue to press for the originally promised timeline that had DOT going out to bid in late 2014, with construction in 2015.
He and others are expected to attend a DOT commission hearing today in Concord. Although public comments will not be taken at the meeting, Greene said he and other state officials are hoping to make their point.