Nashua planners working on ‘Eastern Gateway’ traffic solutions

Staff file photo by Don Himsel/CR Helicopter An aerial view of Bridge Street area before work began on the Renaissance Downtown mixed use project. Planners are still considering their options for the eastern gateway site, which will address traffic and issues on the east/west corridor into Nashua, incorporate traffic flow from two projects now under way in the area and provide visual enhancement.

Nashua planners are mulling over the changes that will be made to a busy entry point into the city, and are considering exactly what form the “Eastern Gateway” will look like and how it will handle traffic flowing into the heart of downtown.

Known informally as the “Eastern Gateway,” the area encompasses space between Bridge Street and Route 111 along with accompanying businesses, curb cuts and open space on the city’s east edge near the Merrimack River and bridge crossings leading to Hudson.

The project started to formulate several years ago, and was part of an ongoing revitalization of former commercial and industrial land into residential and retail space called the Renaissance Downtown project.

“That project was recently confirmed by the state to move forward,” said Nashua’s director of economic development, Tim Cummings. “My office has put out a request for qualifications to procure a multidisciplinary firm to design and manage the infrastructure improvements.”

A previous study of the site, performed by STV, of Boston, under the direction of former Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau, produced several possible designs for the area that have the dual role of handling significant traffic flow and improving the initial view of the city by westbound motorists crossing the Merrimack River from Hudson.

The city received a $3.6 million grant from the New Hampshire Department of Transportation to reconfigure the mix of roads leading in and out of Nashua in what was once heavily used industrial and commercial land on the banks of the river.

Studies have shown that about 40,000 vehicles pass through the area each day.

Additionally, the roadwork will need to handle traffic moving in and out of the 26-acre Renaissance Downtown residential and retail development, as well as traffic that may be using the park-and-ride facility being constructed off nearby Crown Street.

Work has already begun on both of those projects. Fulcrum Associates, of Amherst, has made significant progress on the first buildings that will hold about 150 apartments adjacent to Bridge Street.

That large project, which will eventually include more apartments as well as retail space, is expected to bring $250,000 in property tax revenue to Nashua, along with tens of millions of dollars in overall economic impact.

The park-and-ride facility on Crown Street moved closer to reality in May when a Windham company received a contract to demolish a former warehouse to make room for a grant-funded 250-space,133,860-square-foot lot.

City Engineer Steve Dookran said STV provided “traffic options” in draft form – everything from simple improvements to the area up to major renovation of the roadway by adding new lanes and traffic signals. Between those two options are various forms of roundabouts both with and without traffic-controlling signals that would meter the flow of vehicles entering Nashua from the east.

Several factors went into the STV study, including traffic delays, access and the footprint of each project. Although a roundabout solution was an early favorite, developers of the Renaissance project, who have contributed funds for initial studies, decided it could not effectively handle expected traffic.

An additional complicating factor was the need to look forward and any uptick of traffic from the park-and-ride area, which is also the possible site of a future commuter rail stop.

One of the early STV solutions involved a roundabout with five entry points. That option, Dookran said, could prove particularly beneficial if the Crown Street property in fact became a rail hub.

“Getting direct access to the intersection was the best option as opposed to trying to come through Arlington Street or anywhere else,” he said. “Those streets are not configured for traffic for a passenger rail station.”

Regarding the visual makeover for the gateway area, a mix of green space and hardscape upgrades were discussed, but no decisions have been made because “we did not have an acceptable solution for the traffic,” Dookran said.

One possibility, referred to as the “twin signals” option, resulted in extensive lane and traffic signal construction.

“It leaves a lot of unusable land in between,” he said.

Dookran said STV suggested the best solution would be a “minimum build” that provided a sizeable amount of open space but did not make significant changes to the existing roadway, including entry points for the Renaissance project or Crown Street.

Regarding traffic alone, “Should a roundabout work, a roundabout would be best,” Dookran said.

“You’ve got to look at Hudson, too. Whatever happens there affects us. Whatever here affects Hudson. The whole thing has to be looked at.”

With renewed efforts to keep the project moving, the city has sent the project ahead for more preliminary design work.

Kim Kleiner, chief of staff for Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess, said with further studies, “We will know better then what the traffic flow is there and how it will impact over the bridge.”

Working with Hudson is “something we need to be careful and mindful of,” Kleiner said.

Cummings said he has received about four bids, which will be submitted to the state for evaluation and approval.

“Once they receive approval, we can negotiate scope and contract with the selected vendor and move forward with a design,” he said.

Cummings said he expects about a year’s worth of discussion and evaluation before any construction would take place. Those discussions would include public hearings and community meetings.

Cummings said he wasn’t sure about the best way to handle traffic coming in from Hudson and points east.

“I don’t really have enough information for what will be the best solution,” he said. “I’ve heard many ideas pitched over the years.”

Cummings said under “optimal circumstances,” construction “would start in late 2018 or early 2019.”

Don Himsel can be reached at 594-1249, or @Telegraph_DonH.