NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The three-way intersection of Brown Street, Phillips Street and Boston Neck Road has long been a headache for motorists, pedestrians, residents and business owners alike in Wickford, with the sounds of honking horns and angry motorists and pedestrians a daily occurrence and accidents frequent as drivers confused about who has the right of way – with a stop sign from one way, a yield sign for another way and nothing for the third way.
Complaints and concerns raised from multiple people and organizations such as the Wickford Advisory Committee prompted the Rhode Island Department of Transportation to conduct a study into the intersection, which it found was one of only two intersections in Rhode Island where the traffic coming into a T intersection has a right of way to proceed through without stopping.
RIDOT first revealed the findings of its study to the North Kingstown Town Council during their Sept. 28 meeting, during which RIDOT Managing Engineer and Secretary of the State Traffic Commission (STC) Sean Raymond said that over a three-year period, RIDOT found that 14 accidents occurred at the intersection, mainly rear endings but also some angled crashes, though said the vast majority ended up as property damage only (PDO) crashes, with drivers leaving with only minor injuries.
Raymond returned to speak before the council on Jan. 25, where he revealed RIDOT’s proposed solution: replacing the three way intersection with a single lane rotary, a solution which Raymond argued will prevent long backups as the flow of traffic will be similar in each direction, with a study by the department seeing a peak backup of eight vehicles based on traffic numbers, and that roundabouts encourage drivers to slow down while not coming to a full stop, or possibly hindering emergency vehicles as could happen with three stop signs.
The proposal was reviewed by the Wickford Advisory Committee ahead of the meeting, with the group of Wickford four business owners, four residents and two at-large members choosing to endorse the rotary, also citing the concerns regarding public safety.
“The Wickford Advisory Committee met on it a month ago and talked about the different options that were presented and while there were some members who would’ve preferred a three-way stop, we recognize that when discussion occurred with the town manager and others to talk about public safety that those issues are paramount,” Wickford Advisory Committee Chairman Mike Donahue said during the Jan. 25 meeting. “The fire department and the police department are obviously the most important thing that we considered, but we did feel that if those were the remaining options that were available to us that the roundabout looked like it would be the most effective and at the end of our discussion the 10 members voted of the Wickford Advisory Committee unanimously supported the roundabout at the intersection.”
Like the WAC, the Town Council also unanimously approved the project, which Raymond said is slated to begin as early as the fall of 2023.
While the support for the proposal drew unanimous support among the committees, the reaction was a bit more mixed among the owners of the businesses surrounding the intersection. Though all agreed something needs to be done to remedy the situation, particularly in regards to pedestrian safety, some strongly supported the proposal while others questioned if a rotary was the right solution or if it would lead to further headaches.
For Jeannie Ronci, who owns The Impressed Olive with her husband Bill, the rotary was the best option presented by RIDOT.
“It’s easy for someone to come stand there for an hour to see what’s going on, but I have a bird’s eye view of everything that goes on there all day long, how many near misses and the cursing and the horn blowing, and to me this was the best option,” Ronci said during the Jan. 25 Town Council meeting. “If there’s a van or a truck parked in that first spot, (and) people (are) coming down Phillips Street to make a left hand turn onto Brown Street, you cannot see the oncoming traffic and there have been many, many misses because of that.”
In the larger portion of 4 Brown Street, Gooseneck Vineyards owner Liana Buonnano supported the proposal as something long overdue.
“Something had to be done with the current intersection,” Buonnano said. “The existing structure created a terrible traffic pattern, forcing visitors to avoid Wickford if they could, because of potential traffic back-ups in the summer. The continuous confusion also created danger for the pedestrians crossing the street, as well as frustrations for the drivers. Although our business would be most impacted by the decision to install the rotary, we believe it is in the better interest of the town and pedestrian safety.”
In her five years at the location, Buonnano noted frequently witnessing many of the same issues as her neighbor.
“The noise from the horns, driven by the drivers’ frustrations, has created a negative and unfavorable environment,” Buonnano said. “We are also constantly concerned for pedestrian safety, as town visitors try to cross the streets, with both the pedestrians and the drivers unfamiliar and confused with the regulated traffic flow.”
While she supports the project, Buonnano noted that the change, which will see her lose a pair of parking spots, will make doing business a little more difficult, but that the personal challenges are worth it for the benefit of the community as a whole.
“Operationally for us, it would make some things more challenging,” Buonnano said. “We often have to carry heavy materials in and out of the winery. Losing two parking spaces right in front of our door would mean we would need to park further away, adding physical burden to ourselves and our employees. The addition of the medians will also create operational challenges getting in and out of our property. But again, we strongly believe in doing what is best for the town and the community. Installation of the rotary we hope will improve traffic patterns and pedestrian safety for the residents and visitors to our town.”
At the end of the day, Buonnano said the safety of both motorists and pedestrians alike is paramount and hopes the rotary will put a more positive spin on travelling through the village.
“We want visitors to Wickford to always walk away with a positive experience,” Buonnano said. “We are also looking forward to the elimination of the summer traffic back up, increasing the flow of visitors into our town. Despite the sacrifice required from our business, we are proud to demonstrate our support for the rotary, because it is for the greater good of the town and the community, the value of which cannot be underestimated.”
Across Phillips Street, Gold Lady Jewelers owner Charles Phillips said that while he appreciates the effort, he doesn’t think the proposal is practical due to the limited space they have to work with.
“The idea is great, but the physical space isn’t there,” Phillips said. “My thoughts and my concerns are I cannot understand how they’re going to put a rotary in such a small space. I just don’t understand where the room is.”
Phillips is the longest tenured of the five business owners, having operated the Gold Lady at the intersection since 1980, spending 30 years diagonally across from his current location, which he opened in 2010, and like his neighbors, he’s witnessed plenty of run ins and arguments at the intersection, but is unsure if there’s a correct solution to remedy the issue.
“I’ve been at this intersection for 40 years and I’ve seen fist fights, I’ve seen accidents, I’ve seen just about everything you could imagine and I really am not sure how to fix it,” Phillips said. “(When we were across the street) we used to stand in the window on a boring day and watch the screaming and yelling and swearing and guys pulling over and getting out of their cars and wanting to have a fist fight.”
For Phillips, the intersection’s main issue is pedestrian safety, one he says he first brought up with the town years ago.
“I complained over and over about how they should just put a sign up for crosswalks because people would practically get run over because when they’re coming this way and that way, they’re not stopping,” Phillips said. “The drivers of the cars feel like they have the right of way and that the pedestrians should wait for them to go by when we all know it’s the opposite.”
In particular, one of Phillips’ biggest concerns when it comes to the size of the rotary is how large vehicles such as tractor trailer trucks will maneuver the turn.
“There are a lot of tractor trailer trucks, even though there’s a limit on the weight on the bridge, that doesn’t matter, some of the biggest tractor trailer trucks come through this area,” Phillips said. “If you’re coming down Brown Street in a trailer truck and you want to turn down Boston Neck Road, I want to know how that can happen. I want to know if there’s enough physical room because I don’t believe it’s physically possible. I mean, just looking at it from a common sense point of view, it’s like ‘ok, where are you putting this thing?’ Yet they’re all up in arms about (how) ‘yes we really need to have this, this is the next issue on our to do list and it’s going to make life better for everybody.’”
“Get a tape measure and go out there and measure corner to corner, corner to corner or criss cross and tell me how you’re going to get a trailer down Brown Street, around the rotary, onto Boston Neck Road? Explain that to me and then I can give you a better idea about how I feel,” Phillips added. “Right now I just don’t see how it’s possible.”
Phillips said that even with parking spaces being removed and the rotary being small that the proposal still doesn’t make physical sense.
“I’m all for any improvements that we can do to the village, but I want to know how they’re going to do this, it doesn’t make physical sense,” Phillips said. “You can have all of these dreams and delusions, but where the heck are you going to put the thing? It just doesn’t make sense. That’s why there’s an issue now because there’s not enough room here and now you want to put an obstacle in the middle of the road, so now you just made three roads smaller. Not bigger, smaller, because of the obstacle.”
Additionally, he also questioned what would become of the brick sidewalks in the current intersection.
“What about these beautiful, expensive crosswalks that you put in,” Phillips asked. “It’s like, do you really want to dig this street up again… I applaud them for trying to improve things, but where is it going to go?”
Overall, Phillips says he just sees a rotary creating more problems than it solves.
“I think it’s going to make a bad situation worse,” Phillips said. “If you just stand here and look out the window, it’s not like we’ve got 100 cars backed up here everyday because it’s a big problem here. I think they really have made a mountain out of a molehill without a good solution. I don’t know if there is a solution, quite frankly, I really don’t. You don’t want a red light, so a rotary’s going to do what? It’s going to make things way more complicated.”
Next door at The Sew-Op, which is situated nearly front and center of the intersection, owner Suzanne Mancini also expressed some concern with the size of the intersection, but says she strongly supports the rotary proposal and believes it to be the best option.
“I was in support of the rotary, that was my favorite from the beginning,” Mancini said. “I didn’t think that the other proposal really was going to do much to improve the situation, so it seemed to me that the rotary made the most sense. It’s a really tight turn, so I’m not convinced about the space involved, but RIDOT seems to know what they’re doing and I’m not the engineer, but I’ve been involved in this conversation for about a year and a half now because it is so dangerous and I teach so many young students that either walk up from the middle school or are crossing the street that it’s a great concern.”
She also agreed with the assessment that a rotary is better suited for the flow of traffic.
“I think the rotary keeps the traffic flowing, it allows the emergency vehicles (to move freely) and keeps people coming through Wickford, which we would like them to continue to do,” Mancini said. “We don’t want it to be a backup so that people stop going through the village, we want them to be able to see our shops. It’s a tough corner and it doesn’t make sense to anybody, so I was in support of the rotary from the get go.”
Mancini has run The Sew-Op from its 14 Phillips St. location for the past four and a half years and admits running a business in the location is a challenge and that when she first looked at the property, her husband, Town Council President Greg Mancini, was very skeptical.
“My husband said to me ‘are you crazy? You know no businesses stay there.’ It’s not a great retail spot because people are afraid to cross the street, it’s too dangerous, so we don’t get the walk by traffic that I would if we were on Main Street or Brown Street,” Mancini said.
She feels her business model, being more of a teaching center that specializes in fabrics, suits her better for the location than other traditional retailers that have tried their luck at the location over the years.
“There’s a hindrance to having a business here because of that intersection, it’s just really dangerous, and I don’t honestly know that the rotary will improve my business, it’s more of a safety factor,” Mancini said. “If anything, I don’t know if it’s going to help as far as business is concerned, but I think it’s something that really needs to be done.”
The dangers of the intersection are very real for Mancini, who recalled a particular incident that made her rearrange her set up for her own safety.
“My desk used to be up at the front window and I moved it to the very back corner because somebody didn’t make the turn once and hit the fence between my store and the Gold Lady,” Mancini said. “There’s just too many near misses, it’s constant road rage, especially in the summer. You see more and more people coming to South County and more and more people are trying to avoid Route 1 so they’re coming down 1A and there’s a lot more traffic than when I first opened. There’s a noticeable difference, so that’s a good thing for the village but we really need to deal with the situation differently than when I first was here when there was less traffic.”
Like Phillips, Mancini also raised the question of what would happen with the brick crosswalks and whether they will be removed or moved when the rotary comes in, and will the new rotary keep with the rustic charm that the village has worked so hard to foster, a question which she raised with RIDOT during the Jan. 25 Town Council meeting, and said she hopes to see some decoration added to the finished product to make it further fit in with the rest of Wickford.
“I think it’s important that we maintain that look of the village, so something small, obviously it’s a little roundabout, it’s not as large as that island is, but something that can go in the center would be in keeping with the village itself,” Mancini said.
Across the intersection at 1 Brown Street, which the Gold Lady once occupied, Eclectic Bungalow owner Kerry Oliver said that while she didn’t want to be interviewed on tape, she was against the proposed rotary and believes that a traffic light would’ve been the better solution and, like Phillips, expressed her concerns that the rotary could be a “nightmare waiting to happen.”
The proposal is on RIDOT’s schedule, with Raymond saying the earliest they can begin work on the rotary after completing other projects already on the docket ahead of it is the fall of 2023, though most likely locals and visitors alike will have to wait until 2024 to take their first spin around the roundabout and until then, ensuring the safety of the motorists and pedestrians at the intersection remains a top concern.