Roundabout debate shifts to speed limits (6/18/09)

State to study traffic on Routes 2 and 2A

June 18, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The great roundabout debate took an unexpected turn on Monday as the Selectboard moved toward reducing speed limits on two Williston thoroughfares.

The board voted to ask the state to study traffic on U.S. 2 in and around the village and on Vermont 2A north of Taft Corners. The study could be a precursor to lowering speed limits on both thoroughfares to improve safety.

The board invited Vermont Agency of Transportation representatives to answer questions about the consequences of reversing a previous decision to install a roundabout at the intersection where U.S. 2 meets North Williston and Oak Hill roads.

That vote two months ago angered many residents, hundreds of whom have since signed a petition saying the traffic improvement is unwanted and unnecessary.

Earlier this month, the Selectboard voted 3-2 to reaffirm its choice. Board member Jeff Fehrs, who cast the swing vote, said he might change his mind but first wanted more information.

Kevin Marshia and Josh Schultz from the Agency of Transportation answered numerous questions about the implications of a change of heart. Because the traffic-clogged intersection is ranked as among the most dangerous in Vermont, the nearly $1 million cost of a roundabout would be entirely funded by the federal government.

“What I’m trying to do is make sure we’re not losing the opportunity for funding by making a decision tonight or in the near future,” Fehrs said.

Schultz said as long as the intersection stays on the 50-most-dangerous list, funding will be available to either install a roundabout or a traffic light. Accident data collected over a multi-year period is considered when forming the list, which is revised annually.

Marshia said there were 25 crashes at the intersection over a multi-year period ending in 2006. But roundabout opponents assert that accidents have decreased since a flashing beacon was installed warning motorists of the four-way stop sign at the corner.

Schultz said if the accident rate falls in the future, the intersection could be moved off the list, eliminating the chance for federal funding. He also noted the state would not unilaterally impose intersection improvements.

“We’re with you folks, and that’s how we anticipate playing it,” Schultz said.

The discussion then turned to other steps that might improve safety, including reducing the speed limit along U.S. 2. Roundabout opponents had urged the town to consider lower limits rather than make changes at the intersection that they said would alter the character of the historic village.

Schultz said the Agency of Transportation considers requests to alter speed limits along state and federal highways on a case-by-case basis.

After receiving a request by town officials, the agency conducts a study that looks at how fast traffic moves on the road in question and a host of other factors, Schultz said. The idea is to make the speed limit match the actual speed of 85 percent of motorists.

The study is then forwarded to the Vermont Traffic Committee, which sets speed limits and other traffic regulations on state highways.

Board member Judy Sassorossi said as long as the town was going to seek lower speed limits on U.S. 2, for the sake of consistency it should also ask for lower limits on Vermont 2A, where bicycles and pedestrians have to dodge speeding vehicles.

Board member Ted Kenney expressed doubts that reduced speed limits would improve safety. Nonetheless, he made separate motions that called on the state to study speeds on three stretches: U.S. 2 east of the North Williston Road intersection; U.S. 2 westward from the intersection to Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church; and Vermont 2A between Taft Corners and the Essex Junction town line.

The board voted 4-0 to approve the motions.

However, the decision is not likely to be the last word in the intersection saga. The board asked for additional information on the roundabout design as well as more traffic data with an eye toward a future meeting on the subject.

Even the decision on the speed limit was carefully crafted to allow for a change of course. Because the board only asked the Agency of Transportation to “study and evaluate” speeds, it still needs another vote to actually request a speed limit reduction before the state will consider changes.