Improvements planned at deadly intersection (1/28/10)

Jan. 28, 2010

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Like most summer weekdays, Sept. 17, 2009 brought brisk lunch hour business to Tim’s Snack Shack at the intersection of U.S. 2 and Industrial Avenue. Customers ordered food and sat outside at picnic tables enjoying the sunny day.


    File photo
A truck sits on an embankment off U.S. 2 after crashing into Tim’s Snack Shack in September. The town has pressured the state, which owns land along U.S. 2, to improve safety at the site.

But around 1:45 p.m., normality disappeared. A pickup truck jumped a curb, plowing into two diners and the shack. Four people sustained injuries and one woman died from her wounds.

Now under pressure from town officials, the state is looking to improve safety at the intersection. While Tim’s Snack Shack, currently closed for the winter, sits approximately 35 feet back from the intersection on land owned by Shelburne businessman William Andrus, the state owns the ground adjacent to the road. The wide, state-owned property offers vehicles extended access to the Snack Shack.

Safety improvement plans call for limiting access to the property where the eatery is located. But for one town official, these improvements are coming too late.

“That corner should have been blocked off a number of years ago,” Williston’s Planning and Zoning Director Ken Belliveau told the Observer last week. “I’m going to say it every time I get the chance to — somebody got killed there.”


A fateful day

Snack Shack owner Tim Leggett will never forget that Thursday afternoon in September.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it,” Leggett said.

Leggett’s friend, 68-year-old Barbara Gregory, died several days later from injuries sustained in the accident. Another victim suffered severe injuries, but is recovering.

Attempts to contact Gregory’s family and the other victim were unsuccessful.

After the accident, a police investigation determined that the pickup truck’s driver passed out before driving off U.S. 2. Police said that before the accident occurred, the driver had hit his head at a construction site and decided to head home, complaining of headaches. Police did not file charges against the driver.

The accident shut down Tim’s Snack Shack for the season and raised concerns about safety at the intersection. Belliveau wondered if the severity of the accident might have been diminished had the Vermont Agency of Transportation, also known as VTrans, improved safety at the busy intersection, such as limiting access to the Snack Shack.

But Andrus, the property owner who leases space to Tim’s Snack Shack, said the accident was just that — an accident. Had access been blocked, the truck driver still would have passed out and driven toward the property.

“The accident had nothing to do with traffic,” Andrus said.

Ken Robie, a project manager with VTrans, agreed.

“Obviously, the reason for the crash really didn’t have to do with traffic,” Robie said. “Whether or not having a barrier there would have had a different outcome, I can’t say.”


Limiting access

VTrans acquired the property from Andrus in 2001. Robie said the state bought the land — nearly half an acre — with expectations of improving the intersection. He said VTrans drafted plans on how to best reconstruct the junction, such as widening the intersection.

But various obstacles stalled the project, including conflicts with utility and sewer lines. The project stayed on the backburner as a result, Robie said.

All the while, the state allowed vehicles to access the property around the intersection’s traffic light. Belliveau said VTrans never applied for access permits as it legally should have starting in 2001.

“The access piece came as a surprise to me,” Belliveau said.

Belliveau said the only legal access to much of the property is near a small office building west of the traffic lights. A driveway enters the property and can reach Tim’s Snack Shack. Andrus said the paving trucks of Rox Asphalt that park on his property use the entrance.

Robie has communicated with town officials and expects to block access to the state-owned land. He said VTrans plans to install tightly spaced delineator posts — generally 3-foot high, flexible posts  — along the roadside in the spring. Other improvements are also in the works. While the delineators won’t stop a runaway vehicle from crossing onto the property, they will alert people not to drive where they used to, Belliveau said.

“Hopefully you’ll be seeing some progress on this project in the near future,” Robie said.


New home for Snack Shack

Leggett wants to move his business elsewhere now that access will make it difficult for customers to visit. He toyed with the possibility of selling the Snack Shack, but opted against the idea.

“I have a lot of faithful customers in Williston and I’d like to stay (in town),” Leggett said. “It’s been rough the past couple months, but we’ll pull through.”