Thursday, December 18, 2008

Plans for a Shelburne Road Roundabout Divide Transportation Types

Seven Days Vermont -- Local Matters

Think navigating the Shelburne Road rotary is hairy during rush hour? It’s nothing compared to the difficulties surrounding the potential redesign of the five-way intersection that ranks as one of Vermont’s 50 most dangerous intersections.

City councilors, residents, traffic-safety experts and bicycling and pedestrian advocate Local Motion are at odds over dueling plans. The differences in the designs — the first emphasizing pedestrian safety and reduced auto speed, the second allowing cars to travel faster at higher risk to walkers and bicyclists — are raising uncomfortable questions about whose interests take precedence: commuters, families who want to safely cross the rotary on foot or bicycles, or Hill residents concerned about increased traffic on their streets.

At stake is almost $1 million in federal funds the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) has promised to the project. VTrans has made it a priority because of the rotary’s alarming accident rate: 53 car crashes between 2002 and 2007.

The first plan, called the single-lane roundabout, would merge Shelburne Road’s two northbound lanes into one as it approaches the convergence of Ledge, Locust, St. Paul and South Willard streets in Burlington’s South End. That would halve the speed of cars and narrow the pedestrian crossing from four lanes of traffic to two. This plan is preferred by Burlington’s Department of Public Works, Local Motion, many residents living near the rotary and the traffic consultants who worked on the plans.

The second plan, called the “hybrid,” keeps two northbound lanes on Shelburne Road moving faster than with the single-lane plan, although it would create longer waits for cars trying to enter the roundabout from St. Paul and Locust streets. It has support from CCTA, the transportation authority that runs the region’s public busses, as well as residents who are concerned about delays, problems pulling onto and off of Shelburne Road, and increased traffic on quiet neighborhood streets.

The hybrid plan also has the support of two of three Burlington city councilors on the committee that is charged with evaluating the designs. Clarence Davis (P-Ward 3)and Bill Keogh (D-Ward 5) are both on the Transportation, Energy and Utilities committee, or TEUC, that will make a recommendation to the city council. At a public hearing on December 4, Davis and Keogh said they support the second option, partly because of concerns about potential traffic delays and bus-route backups.

VTrans, however, isn’t sold on the proposal. The state agency previously expressed reservations that the plan, as envisioned, won’t sufficiently improve safety at the intersection to justify the cost.

Potential backups for CCTA’s Shelburne Road bus route is one reason TEUC is asking VTrans to reconsider its objections, said Keogh. The bus stop at Adams Court, just south of the rotary, may end up being eliminated if the single-lane plan creates delays, he said, citing a December 3 letter from CCTA to Burlington Public Works.

For an outside opinion, Seven Days called on traffic consultant Georges Jacquemart, a partner with New York-based BFJ Planning and the author of Modern Roundabout Practice in the United States. Although he’s not working on the redesign, he agreed to study the two competing plans.

“There’s no doubt the single lane is the best alternative,” Jacquemart said in a telephone interview. Since traffic is constantly moving into a roundabout, cars enter a “rolling queue” which may result in a rush-hour delay of five to 15 seconds, he said. But “it’s crazy to risk pedestrian lives because of this delay, and it’s not a delay that would cause cars to shift to other routes.”

Residents brought that up at a November 13 public hearing: If traffic slows on Shelburne Road, will some of those drivers divert to quiet Hill Section streets such as Prospect Parkway and Crescent Road? It’s unlikely, said RSG’s Mark Smith, who worked on the roundabout plans. “If the delay is less than 10 seconds, then why would you go three blocks out of your way?” he asked.

While the city awaits an answer from VTrans, there’s a concern the agency might direct the funds elsewhere, said Eleni Churchill, senior transportation planner for the Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization, which funded and reviewed the study of the roundabout plans. In the meantime, City Councilor Andy Montroll (D-Ward 6), who chairs the TEUC, said he would like to see the committee consider a single-lane design built on the footprint of the hybrid, which would give the city flexibility if the single-lane plan creates traffic problems.

VTrans spokesman John Zicconi said there’s no deadline for the rotary project. But speaking theoretically, he said, if a city can’t decide what it wants, “then we’ll use money we have for other things.”

After it hears from VTrans on whether it will fund the hybrid, the TEUC will send its recommendation to the city council, which will then vote on which alternative it prefers. The council vote is likely to happen in January, Montroll said. Whatever the decision, many residents who travel on Shelburne Road each day hope the decision comes sooner rather than later.

“I want a safer way to cross,” said Hoover Street resident Leslyn Hall. “I worry about when we’re going to have the next fatality. “

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Road improvements squeeze cyclists

By Jason Starr
The Essex Reporter
Photo by Susan Reid

A ride down Susie Wilson Road may be easier for drivers now that Lowe’s Companies Inc. has widened the road and added turning lanes – a condition of the store’s permit under the State of Vermont’s Act 250 development review.

But what has been an improvement for traffic flow has been anything but for bicyclists.

Michael Hechmer has been commuting by bicycle from his home in Westford to Fletcher Allen Health Care, where he works as a chaplain, for five years. He makes the 15-mile, 45-minute trip each way seven months out of the year. Given rush-hour traffic, he said it’s only 15 minutes longer to bike to work than to drive.

Susie Wilson Road is a critical connector on Hechmer’s way from Route 2A to Route 15. He figured the stretch would be challenging during the summer and fall as construction on the turning lanes was in full swing. And it was difficult, he said, aside from the fact that traffic moved more slowly during the construction period.

But he didn’t expect the work would usurp what was a serviceable bike lane of about 4 feet on both sides of Susie Wilson Road and leave nothing but a torn up sidewalk, that, even when it recovers, is not recommended for cyclists because it repeatedly intersects side streets and turning cars.

“When they finally got to painting the lines I realized I no longer had an identifiable shoulder,” Hechmer said. “Now it’s like riding on Route 15. There’s just no space for a bicycle.”

The previous four-foot bike shoulder stretched from Kellogg Road nearly to Route 15. As state and local transportation officials negotiated road improvements with Lowe’s during Act 250 review last year, they knew they would be squeezing cyclists in favor of automobiles.

“We acknowledged right up front that we would lose these bike lanes,” Essex Public Works Director Dennis Lutz said. “But with 25,000 cars out there, you have to make choices. This was a casualty of trying to fix the traffic and reduce accidents out there. Something had to give.”

The Act 250 process incorporated hearings seeking public input on the plan for Susie Wilson. Chapin Spencer, the executive director of Local Motion – a Burlington-area group that advocates for multi-modal transportation infrastructure – regrets not making the case for the bike lanes then.

“We struggle trying to be at all places all the time,” Spencer said. “We’ve worked hard to get county and state plans to be developed so this is just thought about as part of normal planning improvements.

“It’s not easy balancing all the modes,” he added, noting planners incorporated pedestrian crosswalks and sidewalks into the Susie Wilson Road improvements. “But if we can try to think about it up front it will be a lot easier than trying to retrofit it in the future.”

A retrofit is not likely to happen.

“The problem is we are at the limit of our right-of-way,” Lutz said. “We have no room to add bicycle lanes.”

The town plans to mark the right-hand lanes of the road as shared lanes with bikes and cars. That may not be enough for Hechmer. He’s considering alternate, if longer, commuting routes for the spring.

“I’m going to try and miss as much of Susie Wilson as I can,” he said.