November 26, 2014

Neighborhoods searching for exit out of life in the fast lane

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Speeders creating safety concerns

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

For years, the children of Michael and Barbara O’Connor could play street hockey on Chamberlin Lane without worrying about passing traffic. Then Chamberlin Lane was extended to connect the family’s Indian Ridge neighborhood to the newly constructed Brennan Woods.

“And street hockey went away real quick,” Michael O’Connor said.

A quiet dead-end street instantly became a bustling connector road bridging not only the Indian Ridge and Brennan Woods neighborhoods, but also Mountain View Road and U.S. Route 2. Unsurprisingly, traffic speeds shot up.

The road linking the neighborhoods came out of Williston’s comprehensive plan, which calls for connected neighborhoods. However, the road’s opening also created undesired traffic hazards on a residential street replete with pedestrians and playing children. The speeds on the Chamberlin Lane have concerned some residents so much that they have taken to parking their vehicles on the side of the road instead of in their driveways in order to narrow the road and create an impromptu traffic calming measure.

The town is moving to improve conditions on the road. A consultant hired by the town recently released recommendations for traffic calming measures in the Brennan Woods development, including on a stretch of Chamberlin Lane. The measures feature speed tables, which are longer, flatter versions of speed bumps.

Increasingly, as Williston has grown, town officials are hearing from residents concerned about traffic speeding through their neighborhoods. At the same time, the comprehensive plan calls for roads to connect neighborhoods. When those connections are made, speeds tend to increase.

Traffic calming measures such as speed bumps are seen as the solution. The Brennan Woods recommendations came on the heels of the Selectboard’s recent approval of traffic calming measures on Van Sicklen Road.

Traffic calming steps are not as common in Williston as in nearby Burlington and South Burlington, because they are generally not needed, according to Public Works Director Neil Boyden. However, fast-moving traffic through residential streets tends to prompt concern among neighbors and calls for the town to take action.

For instance, Fred Reiner gave an impassioned speech to the Selectboard in May about traffic on Brennan Woods Drive. The O’Connors visited the board in October to highlight worries on Chamberlin Lane.

“There are a lot of children in this neighborhood and eventually someone is going to get hurt — or worse — if something doesn’t change,” Michael O’Connor said.

According to an engineering study, prevailing speeds on Brennan Woods Drive and Chamberlin Lane approach 35 to 40 miles per hour, despite posted speed limits of 25 miles per hour.

The Brennan Woods experience has served as a sort of test case for town officials, illuminating potential problems with large developments and with roads connecting neighborhoods. Ownership of the streets in Brennan Woods has not yet been transferred from the project’s developer, the Snyder Companies, to the town, greatly limiting the steps the town can take to control traffic.

For instance, Boyden said, “We can’t set the speed limit and enforce it without owning the facility.”

Based on the problems that have arisen, Town Manager Rick McGuire said the town might reexamine the process it uses for assuming control of a road. Also, traffic calming will be considered in the planning for a project — rather than after a development is complete and problems emerge.

“We will likely want to see traffic calming built into the construction of the road itself,” McGuire said.

Most of Williston’s subdivisions are not linked by connecting roads — a chief reason the town does not have more speed problems in its neighborhoods, Boyden said.

Though the town hopes to increase connections in the future, McGuire said it is unlikely that town would seek to connect existing neighborhoods. The focus would instead be on building such connections into new subdivisions.

The advantages of connected neighborhoods are many, according to town officials. Boyden said they improve access for public safety and maintenance vehicles. McGuire said connected neighborhoods ease congestion on main roads and improve convenience for motorists and pedestrians. The connections just must be accompanied by steps to keep traffic speeds in check.

Residents often ask for increased police presence at spots where they say traffic is too fast. However, it can be difficult for Williston’s relatively small police force, which typically has no more than two officers on patrol, to spend large amounts of time on traffic control. In addition, McGuire said, police presence only has a limited effect on lowering speed limits. Physical changes are often necessary.

The O’Connors agree. They said they are pleased the town is considering speed tables for Chamberlin Lane. The town sent a copy of the engineer’s traffic calming measures for Brennan Woods to the Brennan Woods Homeowners Association for feedback in April.

Most complaints about speed originate on the town’s larger connecting roads, like North Williston Road and Mountain View Road. However, the town frequently is restricted in the work it can do to install traffic calming steps on those roads.

For example, the Selectboard and a group of residents sought speed tables on Van Sicklen Road to subdue speeding traffic. But an engineering study showed that the speed tables were not warranted because of the current average speed of traffic, though that speed was well in excess of the posted speed limit. Implementing the speed tables when they were not warranted would carry significant risks, McGuire said.

“It creates a liability problem,” McGuire said. “If someone has an accident there and the traffic calming isn’t according to standards, then the town’s first line of defense has been lost.”

Instead, the town approved a set of less powerful traffic calming measures.

Perhaps the town’s most significant traffic calming project was the installation of speed tables in the Meadow Run neighborhood approximately two years ago. Boyden said the town had received complaints from Meadow Run residents about excessive speeds in the neighborhood. The town hired a traffic consultant and ultimately speed tables were recommended.

Boyden said he judges the speed tables to be a success based on one key piece of evidence.

“I haven’t heard any complaints since we put them in,” he said.

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