Opening day for a new, improved Middleborough rotary is still four years away, but drivers who regularly brave the circular free-for-all are already celebrating, as are local officials who predict an explosion of regional growth.
In January, after decades of delays, the state Department of Transportation said design and permitting for the rotary makeover — to include a new flyover — would not only begin immediately but state engineers would also end the impasse by using the town’s $38 million plan over the state’s $25 million version.
Town officials and others agree the notorious nightmare at the hub of Routes 28, 18, and 44, and Interstate 495 — the scene of countless accidents and regular backups — has been the single largest roadblock to economic vitality in Middleborough. But that’s about to change, they say.
“Having lived in Middleborough for the greater part of my life, I can honestly tell you that doing a flyover on the rotary will expand immediate growth to this community of 23,000,’’ said Judy Bigelow-Costa, a town resident and past president of Middleborough on the Move, an economic development group.
“Growth planning will come to be a necessity in housing, affordable housing, water and sewer updates and tie-ins, industrial development of services, retail, and manufacturing,” she said.
Middleborough’s 2005 Affordable Housing Plan said improvements to the rotary — if they were ever completed — would increase local jobs by 50 percent between 2001 and 2025, she said. Now that the groundwork is being laid for construction, and the traffic woes at the rotary would be alleviated, developable land all over town will see an uptick in activity, she said, “and there will be regional accessibility and economic development in all areas of the town.”
According to the Department of Transportation, approximately 40,000 cars use the rotary each day and there were 58 accidents there a year on average between 2007 and 2009 before the numbers jumped to about 123 a year between 2009 and 2011. Built around 1932, the rotary encircles a green lawn used as an American Legion memorial where flags are periodically flown as a way to honor deceased servicemen and women.
Agency spokeswoman Sara Lavoie said it will take a few more months to finalize a planning or feasibility study for the work, which will be the guide for the project going forward. She said the agency is coordinating with the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Federal Highway Administration to discuss requisite environmental compliance needs and issues.
In essense, she said, the flyover will allow traffic traveling on Route 44 eastbound and westbound to avoid entering the rotary, decreasing the volume of vehicles that need to navigate it so it can operate more efficiently.
“Once the planning study is complete, we will prepare and file an Environmental Notification Form with the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act office, and at that point, likely June of this year, we will be ready to start project development,” Lavoie said.
State officials have estimated that work could wrap up by sometime in 2018.
That cannot come soon enough for state Senator Marc Pacheco of Taunton, who has lobbied colleagues on Beacon Hill for years to get the project going — about 21 years, to be exact, he said.
“It comes down to money, and was about being able to acquire the resources and get an administration to approve it,’’ he said.
The delay has had a true regional impact, he said, pointing to other key projects that opened up the region, like the widening years ago on I-495 to Cape Cod, on Route 44 to the junction of Route 3, and improvements on Route 24.
Pacheco is also a huge advocate of rail service to open up traffic and opportunity. A dream scenario, he said, would be to not only revamp the Middleborough rotary, but also get a regular rail line rolling through the region from Boston to the Upper Cape, as well as bringing online the proposed South Coast commuter rail line to connect South Station with Fall River and New Bedford.
“The whole rail corridor would see thousands of jobs,’’ he said. “And the Middleborough rotary, in the heart of Southeastern Massachusetts, is something so obvious that needed to be done for years.”
Pacheco and Middleborough Town Manager Charles Cristello said a Rotary Task Force, comprising members from Middleborough and surrounding towns, will be formed to ensure that communities receive the best result from the makeover.
Local commuters have long viewed the rotary as a formidable opponent that had to be fought daily to keep a schedule.
Dominique Grant, a 23-year-old restaurant server from Bridgewater who works at two establishments in Middleborough, said she has to leave home up to 45 minutes early most days to be able to get through the circle and the few miles down Route 28 to her jobs at Harry’s and Boston Tavern.
Melissa Kemlage of Carver said she dreads the days she has to drive to Raynham and Taunton for errands because of bumper-to-bumper backups on the only convenient road she can use to get there.
Middleborough resident Tia Quinn said she and other family members have been rear-ended by over-anxious drivers in the rotary in recent years, and they have witnessed a tractor-trailer flip over during a heavy traffic crush.
“My husband and I live on the dead-end part of Clay Street, and trying to get in and out is death-defying,” added Kim Martin-Jones, describing her road located between the rotary and two industrial parks on Route 18.
And Al Cronin, president of the St. Vincent De Paul Society in Middleborough, said the 2- to 5-mile backup on Route 44 west every morning is so frustrating that he is often forced to take the long way around the rotary to try to avoid traffic, but even alternate routes are often clogged.
Originally, the state proposed a $25 million flyover of Route 44 that would divert drivers heading west in a loop onto Route 18, off to I-495, and then back onto Route 44 west toward Taunton.
But local officials called that proposal a disaster, and offered their own $38 million plan that calls for a direct flyover over the circle that separates the eastbound and westbound lanes on Route 44, and adds an auxiliary lane on I-495.
Local traffic will still be able to access the traffic circle, said James Hadfield, the transportation planning director at Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District in Taunton.
Last year, the planning agency pledged a one-time payment of between $11 million and $16 million to bridge the money gap between the town and state plans. It’s all the federal funding the agency receives in one year for its member communities’ transportation needs, Hadfield said, but the group agreed the rotary was a priority.
“The communities in this region work together,’’ he said. “Everybody is fighting for dollars, but their time will come.”
While most people are singing its praises, the rotary project is moving forward without the dissemination of some basic information, such as the difference between current and future traffic volume, and how anticipated commuting times would improve after the work.
Regional officials said the lack of specifics can be blamed on the halt in the planning process once the town and state reached stalemate on which design plan to use. Lavoie, the Department of Transportation spokeswoman, said planning is in process now.
The lack of concrete information is troubling, said political activist Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation, but not unexpected.
“We are talking about the government,’’ Anderson said. “You always wonder if they don’t answer your questions because they don’t want you to know, or because they don’t know the answers.’’
Still, she said, “They should have the numbers at their fingertips. It’s a rotary, not the Panama Canal.”
In Middleborough, meanwhile, local officials and others are pushing to establish the town as a tourism destination, and they say the rotary improvements will help make that happen. Some have been working on ways to capitalize on local natural and other resources; their plans include establishing a downtown cultural district and a three-day herring festival, set to debut in April.
“We have been working tirelessly for years,” Selectwoman Leilani Dalpe said on the day the state announced the rotary work would commence. “This will open everything up so people can get here. It will not only put us on the map, we will be one of the biggest sites on it.”