REVISITING THE KEENE (NH) BYPASS PROJECTIOIN OF TRAFFIC ON KEY LINKS
The $70 million Keene (NH) Bypass Expansion Bypass Project) project in the early 2000s sunk beneath public opposition stoked by a erroneous environmental study, the emergence of roundabout technology, and unsupportable inflated traffic projections. The scrapped project essentially switched to four roundabouts, the first in place in 2007--and with installation of the remaining three sure to accomplish a better, more efficient, environmentally beneficial final transportation result all the while saving about $55 million in scarce tax dollars for the State.
The City of Keene, the first urban location in the nation having evaluated by 2005 all its major core intersections for roundabout conversion, built its first at the entry to the regional hospital and the second, also in 2007, as the co-circular intersection on Main Street with daily entering traffic of 25,000 at the border of Keene State College and about five blocks from circular Central Square upper extremity of Main Street. Main Street for decades touted as the widest paved Main Street in the nation slowly transformed late in the last century and now street center parking, medians and traffic calming elements, and street beautification measures. The new roundabout enables traffic to circulate easily from north to south using the roundabout and Central Square to easily reverse direction.
The Bypass Project was essentially along the major east west NH 101, a route turning into NH 9 which ends about 20 miles beyond at the Vermont border. Ironically the first Vermont intersection on the highway, now VT 9, is the multi-lane Keene Turn Roundabout which opened in 1999 becoming the first northeastern interchange (VT 9/I 91/US 5). This Vermont roundabout, immediately popular with users, clearly played a key role in demonstrating the practicality of roundabouts along the Keene Bypass. (That roundabout handles over 900 tractor trailer trucks daily as regional wholesale grocery warehouses are located within a half mile of the I 91 interchange roundabout).
The Bypass Project Opposition
Notice needs to be given to the tremendous work, dedication and savvy of a grass roots opposition to the Bypass Project. A handful of individuals appeared at the prime public hearing by the NH Department of Transportation but soon a fledgling organization calling itself Concerned Cheshire Citizens (CCC) formed. Forums were held explaining the project and its impacts on many aspects, information on roundabouts quickly surfaced as an alternative, petitions were circulated—one petition late in the process was composed of over 180 downtown area business owners. A regular stream of letters included a series of hilarious comic strip submissions from a CCC member which made fun of either proponents or more often the statements of the NHDOT. The CCC brought two of the three major leaders of American roundabout development into the fray, Barry Crown of the UK who authored of one of two most popular roundabout software products in the U.S. and Scandinavian Leif Ourston who built the first modern roundabout in the U.S. in 1990 in Las Vegas. The third U.S. roundabout pioneer, Michael J. Wallwork of Jacksonville, whose background includes highway construction administration in Melbourne, not only gets credit for the first roundabout in the northeast (east of Las Vegas and north of Maryland), Keck Circle in Montpelier, VT but also did the preliminary feasibility study leading to the Keene Turn Roundabout and the first evaluations of several intersections in Keene itself before the Bypass Project controversy arose.
The CCC finally took an intransigent NHDOT to court through the New England environmental law advocacy organization, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF). The bulldozers were literally ready to roll when the CCC won its case at a State Superior Court and by the time a later NH Supreme Court ruling the NHDOT was about ready to throw in the towel. Victory came to the CCC when the NHDOT held a public meeting in the City and asked the City what it wanted. The City pointed to the busiest intersection—Winchester Street NH 10/12/101—and the NHDOT hired the CCC consultant Barry Crown to do the design and the rest is now history. (Crown was also specifically chosen by the City to design the Main Street roundabout, a $4 million project funded entirely from local property taxes.)
The Traffic Numbers
The Bypass Project traffic projections occurred during what clearly was—and continues to be—a major shift in car travel growth in the U.S., but particularly dramatic in slow growing states and regions, such as New England, the northeast and the midwest. Vermont and New Hampshire transportation planners and officials already knew by the early 1990s that the burst of 1980s growth of 38% of annual vehicle miles of travel (AVMT) for the New England States would drop to about 20% and then even lower in the first decade of the 21st Century. Actual New England states average decade AVMT growth numbers were: 38% for the 1980s, 16% for the 1990s and 3% for 2000-2010. (It is fair to estimate an overall decline in AVMT for New England in this decade and note that Rhode Island numbers for 2000-2010 were -0.5%.)
The Bypass Project consultanttraffic projections were derived primarily from growth in retail space in the County and that growth translated into household growth, then car travel, etc. Whatever the validity of that approach, it did not take into account factors which, apparently, became far more important—changing demographics, leveling off of female workforce participation rates, the role of increased gasoline costs, and household sizes no longer declining significantly.
In the Superior Court case, I submitted expert testimony in regard to roundabout feasibility as an alternative to the massive Bypass Project and unjustifiable inflation of the traffic growth numbers by the project consultants. As a Vermont transportation planner (and Keene native) who worked in policy and planning for thr NHDOT and Vermont Agency of Transportation for two decades, my estimate for Cheshire County traffic growth for the 1990-2015 period was basically 7% a decade (0.7% per year) using the factors of population growth/projection from the NH Office of State Planning (6% per decade for the period) and adding 1% per decade for the increase of driver age population with a driver license. Still, this was an estimate based experience with various factors at play, not the product of a sophisticated model used to
derive the consultant projections. Just using the known 1990-2010 known New England average growth of 10% per decade—and assuming nil growth for 2010-2015—the 7% per decade estimate appears to be right on target, certainly far closer to the “real” growth than the consultant projections which were much of the underpinning for the Bypass Project. In truth, my projection really was an educated guess taking into account demographic and a now two decades old work with various monthly and annual actual traffic figures (mostly in Vermont) along with a variety of other factors affecting vehicle travel as well as research material in the field. My “educated guess” for Vermont for 2000-2010 was single digits of about the same as for the Keene area, 7%, but my personal oft expressed “target range” expectation was -5% to +5%. While Vermont came in at 6.4% 2000-2010 (all sources of actual states growth are taken directly from the Federal Highway Administration [FHWA] “Highway Statistics” series) the Vermont numbers remain suspect for 2010 versus 2000 as two changes in methods in calculating AVMT occurred during the period. Further, the Vermont growth for 2000-2010 coming in substantially higher than the other slow growth states—Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island—adds to the likelihood of a methodology affecting the 2000-2010 comparisons. Keene, incidentally, and Cheshire County population growth and characteristics are very similar in pattern to Vermont and that pattern varies substantially from the statewide New Hampshire trends dominated by the populous and fast growth southeastern and south central areas.
Note my “educated guess” for New England for 2010-2020 is -5% with a personal target range of -7% to -12%. Working off a questionable Vermont base number of 2010—and assuming no methodological changes—Vermont will likely enter similar negative territory both for the “educated guess” of -5% and “personal target range” of -7 to -12%. In other words Vermont AVMT change this decade will also mirror the average of other New England States.
In a period of rapid demographic, fuel price and economic change, the calculation of statewide and regional AVMT change may be said to be far more an art than a science.
Just one example can explain why the factor demographics alone weigh heavily on AVMT growth. U.S. Census projections for Vermont show an absolute zero increase in under 65 population during the period 2000-2030 while the aged 65-and-over increases about two and a half times. Compared to the prime driving age population, 25-55, the 65-and-over driver covers 40% less miles per year. This factor alone significantly reduces the upside for AVMT growth potential, assuming other factors remain unchanged.
The Bypass Project Projections—the “reality” versus “projection” numbers so far
Here are the four key segments of the Bypass Project, actual 1990 vehicles per day, most recent traffic counts—all from 2008-2010--from the NHDOT extrapolated to 2015, and the Bypass Project “2015 Build Volume” along with its percentage differential to the estimate using the most recent data:
Road Segment Average Annual Daily Traffic % Project Estimate
1990 2015 Recent Project over "Recent" projection
NH 101 Optical 10,100 11,300 (2008) 31,750 181%
Ave. to Main St. (11.9%)
NH 12/101 between
Main and Winchester
Streets over the
Ashuelot River 19,390 22,650 (2009) 39,700 75%
NH 101/10/12 west
of Winchester St. to
north segment to
West Street 22,100 27,950 (2010) 32,950 18%
NH 9/10/12 north of
NH 101 to West St.
interchange 20,120 23,900 (2009) 38,300 60%
Note “recent” traffic counts used were directly from NHDOT reports online. Finally, extrapolation from the 2008-2010 period to 2015 would be expected to overstate somewhat the 1990-2015 growth since clearly growth rates overall slowed considerably over the period.
The conclusions one can draw from this “reality” update are several. First, whatever the factors were utilized by the NHDOT consultants to project traffic increase, those factors were far less accurate than using statewide known traffic trends available to planning staffs at the transportation agencies at both states, trends which I utilized in my analysis having experience with data trends of both states. Second, the NHDOT was insensitive to the major change in traffic growth patterns which while perhaps relatively unimportant in fast growing areas of the state were extremely important in analysis of traffic growth in slow growth areas which predominate the rest of New England including southwestern New Hampshire. Finally the “slowdown” of traffic growth accelerated during the 2000-2010 period. With trend expected to continue even slowing of the decline leads to a lower AVMT than the -2% to -7% suggested above.
February 22, 2012
(Note the 16-page Redington testimony submitted in the Merrimack Superior Court case is dated April 8, 2000.)