Board OKs lower speeds on U.S. 2 (8/27/09)

State approval still needed for 30 mph limit

Aug. 27, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The Selectboard on Monday signed off on a lower speed limit in Williston Village, despite concerns the change could collide with efforts to improve a traffic-clogged intersection.

The board unanimously agreed with a recent traffic study’s recommended 30 mph speed limit on U.S. 2 between Old Stage Road and Johnson Lane. In addition to the 5 mph reduction, there would also be a “transition zone” east of Johnson Lane where the limit would be 40 mph before finally changing to 50 mph. The changes need state approval before going into effect.

The speed limit decision grew out of the controversy surrounding the board’s vote to install a roundabout at the village’s central intersection, where U.S. 2 meets Oak Hill and North Williston roads. A majority of the board felt the roundabout would best reduce frequent commute-hours backups.

The nearly $1 million project would be eligible for federal funding because of the high number of accidents — 25 during a five-year period — at the intersection.

But many residents were aghast, saying the change was unnecessary and would hurt the historic character of the village. Hundreds signed a petition opposing the decision.

The board refused to backtrack on the roundabout but agreed to a traffic study to determine whether speeding was contributing to the high accident rate.

Board member Chris Roy worried about “shooting ourselves in the foot” because the new speed limit could reduce accidents and thus eliminate funding for the roundabout.

“Either we’ll find out it’s still not safe and we just delayed things for two years, or we’ll find out safety is improved and we just lost hundreds of thousands of dollars that would help alleviate the congestion at the intersection.”

Roy later added, “I’m not going to root for lots of collisions in order to maintain funding. But the unintended consequence is that we’ll be looking at footing a lot more of the bill.”

Other board members seconded his concern. Judy Sassorossi noted a similar situation occurred at Vermont 2A and Marshall Avenue. When right turns were prohibited, she said, the accident rate fell and intersection improvements were no longer considered necessary.

Jeff Fehrs wondered if the next logical step would be to rescind the roundabout decision. He said the “dialogue” with opponents was not yet finished.

“How can we have a dialogue when we don’t have any more information than we had in the past?” asked Chairman Terry Macaig, an apparent reference to the idea of waiting to see if a speed limit change would improve safety before reconsidering the roundabout. “If we have the same information, we’d make the same decision.”

The traffic study conducted by the Agency of Transportation looked at vehicle speeds and accident rates on U.S. 2 in the village. It found there had been 50 crashes from 2004 through the end of 2008 despite the fact that most motorists were traveling at or near the speed limit.

Speed limits are primarily based on the speed at which 85 percent of all motorists actually drive. But the study concluded that because of other factors — the high accident rate, traffic volume and the presence of pedestrians — a lower limit was merited.

The study also recommended moving the 40 mph speed limit sign on the westbound side of U.S. 2 to the corner of Old Stage Road. But board member Judy Sassorossi said it made more sense to have that speed limit increase occur after the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, where vehicles enter and exit a parking lot located on a steep hill.

The board, as part of its approval of the reduced speed limit, agreed to ask the state to consider that departure from the traffic study’s recommendations.

Now the three-member Vermont Traffic Committee, headed by Transportation Secretary David Dill, will decide whether to approve the speed limit reduction. The committee has the final say on speed limits on state roads.

The proposal could be heard as soon as the committee’s next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 3.