For residents of Brandon, the past year has been filled with noise, dust and the steady hum of roadwork. It’s part of a nearly $30 million infrastructure upgrade that’s remaking the town both above ground and below.
These days, driving through Brandon can add 15 minutes to your commute.
Brandon resident Joe Flynn knows this only too well. “I forget, and I get halfway through and I think, ‘Ah, I could have taken an alternative route.’”
“Then I have to wait 10 to 15 minutes and so I usually call and say, 'I’m going to be late.'"
Town officials say traffic in Brandon has been a headache as long as anyone can remember, with 10,000 to 14,000 vehicles traveling through town every day.
Bernie Carr owns a gift shop in Brandon and heads the Brandon Area Chamber of Commerce.
“I heard a story about an attorney that bought a house on Conant Square, which is another section of Route 7 in the project, back in 1939. And he was told within two years there's going to be a bypass built around Brandon,” says Carr shaking his head and smiling.
Local voters nixed the bypass issue years ago. “But 70 years later,” Carr says, “something's finally being done about the traffic issue.”
Unlike most of Route 7 which is managed by the state, the 1.3 mile segment that’s being overhauled in Brandon is owned locally. So Brandon, not the Agency of Transportation, is managing this project and Carr is the local spokesperson.
“The big thing was getting that sharp corner taken care of,” he says, referring to a particularly nasty, 90 degree turn smack in the middle of the town’s business district.
“I grew up here, right on Franklin Street, right on Route 7,” says Carr. “And I remember at least two milk trucks that tipped over going around that corner.”
The area around that sharp turn looks decidely better now. Work crews have spent the last year reshaping the town green to improve traffic flow. They created additional parking, which can be closed off from traffic for special events.
New curbing and sidewalks will go in along with new landscaping and light posts.
The costliest upgrades are happening below ground, where you can't see them. According to town manager Dave Atherton, the town is tearing up pavement for road work, and replacing more than a mile of century old water and sewer lines.
“So to have 1.3 miles of that completed is huge for us,” says Atherton. “And we're able to actually GPS all of our lines now. Putting them in so we'll have coordinates and we can pull them up and figure out where there is a break. So this is big for us.”
Atherton says federal funding will cover 80 percent of the nearly $30 million project. The state is kicking in 15 percent and local taxpayers are paying the remaining five percent, which he says the town has raised mostly through bonds and appropriations.
Locals say the work is long overdue but the congestion and torn up sidewalks have taken a toll on many downtown businesses.
Inside Gourmet Provence, a shop that sells pastries and specialty foods, it smells fantastic. But co-owner Robert Barral says business is way down. “You can see this morning, the bakery is empty.”
Normally, he says it's much busier. “Oh yes, in the morning, people stop, park their car right in front of it they run into the shop, they get a coffee, croissant, pastries and then they run out and go to work,” he says pointing toward the road.
Now, they’re not stopping. And at Café Provence, the popular French restaurant Barral co-owns just up the street, he says his lunch business is down 50 percent.
Construction on the roadway isn’t set to finish until November, 2019 so it’ll be another tough year. Still, Barral supports the project and calls it a worthwhile investment.
Bernie Carr says the town got about $50,000 in state aid to help local businesses with additional marketing, website support and other signage to spread the word that Brandon is open for business, something he believes is helping.
Back on the sidewalk, local resident Joe Flynn says despite the noise and delays, he’s excited about the town’s makeover. “I can’t wait ‘til they start planting trees next year, he says, adding, “that’ll make it a lot nicer.”
You can already start to see the improved traffic flow along the southern edge of town. Flynn thinks the improvements will make the village more attractive to tourists and new businesses. “We have a new brewery in town that’ll be opening up probably next month,” he tells me pointing down the street.
But his voice is drowned out by a passing front end loader.
He starts to laugh at the irony. “Surprise, surprise,” he says rolling his eyes.