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.

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