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Drivers cautiously navigate new downtown Norwich roundabout

Norwich — Drivers of cars, school buses, trucks and firetrucks slowed and displayed caution Friday afternoon after the new roundabout at Franklin and Main streets opened even before crews removed old "Do Not Enter" signs.

Crews from Nunes Companies completed enough work on the new roundabout to allow traffic to flow in all directions between Main and Franklin streets. A base coat of asphalt was laid down Friday afternoon, and final paving is scheduled to be done on Monday and Tuesday, company owner and President Armand Nunes said.

Norwich resident Francisco Matos sat on his motorcycle on the sidewalk in front of his cousin's shop, Ride the Needle Tattoos on the Franklin Street side of the new roundabout. Matos works in the shop. He watched as the first vehicles crawled through the roundabout about 4 p.m. Friday.

Matos shrugged, shook his head and paused when asked what he thought of the new traffic pattern.

"I'll have to see how it works out," he said. "I really don't have any feedback yet."

He expressed concern about the possibility of speeding drivers jumping the sidewalk and crashing into the shop. Businesses also lost several parking spaces directly in front of their doors because of the roundabout. 

The project calls for creating new angled parking along nearby Bath Street and City Landing off Main Street. There will be a net gain of two spaces total, Nunes said.

The roundabout has been in the works since 2017, when the city converted Franklin Street into a two-way street. But since then, traffic heading toward Main Street on Franklin could not reach Main Street, veering to the right on Bath Street just a half block from Main.

The $538,000 project has been met with some skepticism by residents and business owners, who questioned whether big trucks, commuter buses, school buses and firetrucks could traverse the roundabout safely. The entire roundabout is a single 14-foot-wide lane of traffic. But there also is a 16-foot-wide interior concrete apron for large vehicles to negotiate the circle, with a 3-inch lip from the main asphalt.

The apron appears to be a red brick doughnut, but city engineer and project manager Brian Long said it is actually an 8-inch-thick concrete slab reinforced with metal rebar to bear the weight of large vehicles.

As with all roundabouts, the traffic in the circle has the right of way.

The new Norwich roundabout is “slightly smaller” than the Salem roundabout at Routes 82 and 85, and “slightly bigger” than the two roundabouts in Glastonbury, Long said.

The roundabout includes triangles of grass with sidewalks for pedestrians, with the spokes of the triangles serving as a "refuge" for walkers between crossings, Long said.

The center of the circle has a ring of grass surrounding a concrete center that looks like gray pavers. The center’s only feature now is a flagpole. Long said some plantings may be done in the grassy area, but there are no immediate plans for public art or features in the center.

City Manager John Salomone said there is nothing specific planned now for the center, but the idea is to put something "substantial" there, such as artwork or plantings.

What to call the new intersection also is unknown. Historically, the area has been known as Franklin Square, but the previous traffic pattern was a triangle, and now it’s a circle.

“I don’t know,” Long said. “We didn’t call it a triangle before. I like to think of it as a round peg in a square hole.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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