Towns near shopping malls try to untie their traffic tangles

Trees line the roadside of Common Street, and children play in the front yards of modest homes. The setting could be any suburban community - except for the traffic roaring past on the way to South Shore Plaza.

One of the busiest malls in Greater Boston, the South Shore Plaza has 130 stores offering everything from 59-cent goldfish to $400, three-piece suits. But for residents of Common Street, who live on a major gateway to the mall, the plaza means noise pollution, traffic congestion, and carbon-covered mailboxes in their front yards.

''It's gotten pretty bad,'' says Melinda Johnson, nodding in the direction of the mall as she weeds her garden. ''Sometimes this street looks like the Southeast Expressway at rush hour.''

Mrs. Johnson, a mother of two, and others on the street are concerned for their children's safety. People who drive through here probably don't know what it is like to live along a ''driveway to a mall,'' she adds.

Large malls do provide a number of benefits, namely convenience, tax revenue, and jobs. The South Shore Plaza paid almost $2 million in taxes to Braintree during the last fiscal year, 5.2 percent of the town's total property-tax revenue, according to the tax-collector's office. The mall also employs about 2, 500 people, says Bill Hudson, general manager of South Shore Plaza.

But there are also disadvantages to shoppers' havens like the one in Braintree. The most obvious, in the eyes of mall neighbors, is traffic.

In the greater Boston area, several areas experience congestion because of large concentrations of stores. Besides Braintree, there's the North Shore Plaza in Peabody and the Burlington Mall. To the west are shopping malls in Framingham and the surrounding towns that have come to call themselves MetroWest.

With overburdened sewage systems, contaminated water supplies, and congested traffic, ''the golden mile'' of Route 9, where Shoppers World and Natick Mall are located, has lost much of its sheen.

''We've got a couple of plans in the works (to alleviate traffic),'' says Matthew Clark, town administrator in Framingham. ''First there is the access road between the (Natick) mall and Shoppers World that should really ease the traffic.'' That plan calls for an access road cutting through a strip of woods and connecting Natick Mall to Shoppers World, easing traffic on Route 9 and Route 30 between the two shopping plazas. The road has been on the drawing board for years, but a state grant for Natick to build it just came through, so the plans should be reality within a year or two, Mr. Clark says. ''Even with funding, we all know how slow these projects go.''

The other plan in the Natick-Framingham area involves the infamous ''traffic triangle'' and is still in the very early stages. Both shopping centers are inside a triangle formed by Route 9, Route 30, and Speen Street. The plan is to widen Route 30 and change its access road to the mall areas. ''(Routes) 9 and 30 are far too congested,'' Clark says. ''This should relieve some of that traffic, but it is a few years down the road.''

South of Boston, efforts seem stalled. In Braintree, residents of Common Street see no relief from the traffic that pours down their street. ''We're trying to resolve the problem by slowing traffic down,'' says Robert Sherman, spokesman for the town board of selectmen. ''We've already placed some traffic signals at key intersections.''

But even Mr. Sherman admits that slowing the cars will do little to reduce the number of vehicles using the street. ''The last four or five years have been pretty bad,'' he says. ''Near Christmas, a street like Common is a real mess.''

Besides putting up traffic signals, the town has narrowed some streets next to the mall and squared off some intersections in efforts to slow the vehicles. But residents object to the way the town is handling the problem.

''My kids may be safer with slower cars, but they (cars) are all still there, going back and forth in front of my house,'' says Melinda Johnson.

Sherman and the other selectmen believe that by making some streets one-way, the actual number of cars using secondary roads to the mall will be fewer. ''But the state Department of Public Works does not like one-way streets, so they won't approve them. We've tried,'' Sherman says.

Part of the problem is the rate of growth in South Shore towns themselves. When the South Shore Plaza began building in the mid-1960s, there were fewer people in the area to shop at the plaza. ''I think we've got to stop the town's growth,'' Sherman says. ''This town has grown too rapidly for its own good over recent years.''

During the busy Christmas and back-to-school seasons, police in Framingham, Natick, and Braintree get extra duty working the traffic detail. ''Traffic here is really bad during the Christmas rush,'' says Capt. Ted Buker of the Braintree police traffic division. ''We get all the intersections around here manned, and it helps.''

Residents in the three communities agree the police presence helps, but ''we could use it all the time,'' says Iris DiRico of Framingham.

A report recently released by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, in cooperation with several other state agencies, has developed a system to grade travel conditions on roads. Grades range from A (traffic flow is free) to F (forced flow at low speeds). Routes 9 and 30 in the Natick-Framingham area netted a grade of FF, stating that traffic often moves at ''zero speeds'' when shoppers, commuters, and travelers are all en route at the same time.

The report predicts that ''the MetroWest area will become chaotic in 1990 if proper measures to accommodate traffic are not taken.'' But Mr. Clark, referring to the plans to build an access road and to widen Route 30, says he's optimistic the traffic tangle will be eased in the MetroWest region.

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