Town seeks solution for clogged corner

Is roundabout in offing for Route 2 intersection?

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

For an hour or so most weekdays, the usually mellow stretch of U.S. Route 2 through Williston Village turns into a traffic-choked artery.

Eastbound traffic sometimes backs up a mile or more from the thoroughfare’s intersection with Oak Hill and North Williston roads. The cause: a four-way stop sign that can’t handle the crush of cars during the afternoon commute.

The problem has caught the attention of both town officials and residents. Residents have voiced a steady stream of complaints to the town, said Public Works Director Neil Boyden. He asked the state to reconsider the current arrangement and conduct a traffic study.

Now it appears a signal light or a roundabout will eventually be installed to smooth the traffic flow. State, local and regional officials will meet in coming weeks to discuss changes to the intersection.

Meanwhile, motorists wait, sometimes none too patiently.

“We get a lot of honked horns and screeching tires,” said Shayna Fontaine, a cashier at Korner Kwik Stop, which is located at the intersection. "I personally have had a few close calls myself."

An August traffic study by the state Agency of Transportation paints a vivid picture of a dysfunctional intersection. The agency was unable to accurately measure the congestion because there were too many vehicles to count.

“We found the queue so long that we could not see from one end to the other,” wrote Maureen Carr, a traffic analysis engineer for the state, in correspondence to the town.

In an interview, Carr said a mechanical count showed an average of 11,400 vehicles a day traveled the stretch of Route 2 from Taft Corners to the Oak Hill Road / North Williston Road intersection. That works out to 475 vehicles an hour.

Not surprisingly, there was far more traffic during the rush hour. The count showed an average of 866 vehicles on that stretch of Route 2 between 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Of those, the majority — 525 vehicles — were headed east.

The numbers confirm what is apparent to the casual observer: Traffic flows well most of the day, but the four-way stop is consistently overwhelmed on weekday afternoons by motorists heading east out of town, and occasionally in the morning by those going west into Williston.

The four-way stop has served its intended purpose of reducing waiting time and increasing safety for motorists traveling north and south through the intersection, said Dick Hosking, district transportation administrator for the Agency of Transportation. But he notes that four-way stops cannot handle a large volume of traffic traveling along a major thoroughfare like Route 2.

The signs were considered a temporary solution when they were installed almost four years ago. At the time, IBM had filed an application with the town to expand its facility off Redmond Road, and the town wanted the computer company to pay for traffic improvements at the Route 2 intersection and at the corner of Vermont Route 2A and Industrial Avenue to accommodate the increased traffic. But IBM later shelved the expansion plan and instead laid off hundreds of employees.

Before the current arrangement, there was no stop sign at the intersection on Route 2. Instead there was a two-way stop that halted motorists on Oak Hill and North Williston roads. But that produced long waits for northbound and southbound motorists and presented a safety hazard as they tried to squeeze in among the cars zooming by on Route 2.

During an August 2001 Selectboard meeting, town officials said a 25-second delay on Route 2 would be an acceptable trade-off for limiting backups on North Williston and Oak Hill roads. Eastbound motorists now sometimes spend 10 minutes in stop-and-go traffic to reach the intersection.

State transportation officials suggested at the time that a traffic signal was the best solution. But some residents, particularly those living nearby, opposed the idea, saying the light would mar the historic and quaint nature of the village.

The Selectboard narrowly rejected the signal light by a 3-2 margin. The board has since endorsed a roundabout for the intersection, Boyden said.

Hosking said that option may indeed be the most efficient way to handle traffic. But he warned that a roundabout would likely be more expensive than the $300,000 to $400,000 cost of a signal light. A roundabout would require buying right of way, which could include a portion of the land now occupied by Korner Kwik Stop and Williston Federated Church.

Meanwhile, the recent traffic study concluded that the intersection easily met the standard for installing a traffic light.

No matter what option is chosen or who pays, it will likely take a year or more to make changes. If a signal light is picked, the state has a long list of intersections with worse problems, Hosking said, although the town could shorten the wait by using municipal funds. A roundabout would likely take even longer because of the land acquisition issue and engineering challenges.

“From a practical standpoint, a signal makes a lot of sense,” Hosking said.