Ferrisburgh selectboard reviews safe school route proposals

FERRISBURGH — Recom­men­dations for improvements intended to make it safer for children near Ferrisburgh Central School to walk to school earned mixed reviews from the Ferrisburgh selectboard on Tuesday.
Most selectboard members said they liked at least some of the proposals in a report developed by a town Safe Route to Schools (SRTS) committee with help from the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s SRTS Resource Center.
But they also objected to potential long-range costs, including maintenance of sidewalks recommended in the SRTS committee’s report: According to the report, four children now live within 0.25 mile of FCS, 14 children live within 0.5 mile, and 35 live within one mile. The school has a little more than 200 students.
For the most part finding favor were site improvements on the school grounds, speed enforcement, possibly road re-striping, education and encouragement measures for biking and walking, and possibly improving existing walking trails between FCS and local neighborhoods.
But less welcome were recommendations for sidewalks and a pedestrian-triggered crossing light for Route 7 near FCS.
Selectmen said they were concerned about the sidewalks’ maintenance costs, even if they were grant-funded; the danger of the crossing; and the fact that improvements would directly benefit only some of the students and town.
Selectman John DeVos cited the cost-benefit ratio.
“If it ever happens, who is going to maintain it? … I don’t see a need in the community to go to these extremes to accommodate a handful of kids,” said DeVos, who added the town already pays for buses to bring children to school.
Selectman Jim Warden said he approved of much of the 40-plus-page report developed in the past six months by the town SRTS team, including changes at FCS and some less costly improvements on nearby roads.
“Some of the things you have in here are very good,” Warden said.
But Warden, the Shelburne chief of police, was skeptical about helping elementary school students cross Route 7, which according to the report sees 11,800 vehicles a day.
“Anything to do with (that) side of Route 7 is a nightmare,” Warden said.  
The selectboard, instead of backing the report, voted to support a public effort to lobby VTrans for traffic lights at Little Chicago Road and Route 7. Lawmakers will consider this winter a Vermont House bill written by Rep. Diane Lanpher (D-Vergennes) at the request of FCS students; that bill would ask VTrans to install a light at that intersection.
DeVos said VTrans has refused to listen to town officials, but might respond to public pressure.
“Maybe if there was a grassroots effort to get things going it would have a greater impact,” he said.
Although resident Bob McNary sided with those who said is was too dangerous to have children cross Route 7, several residents supported the SRTS effort and those presenting the report to the board: FCS nurse Anne Cohn, SRTS Resource Center official Abby Mattera, and Charlotte landscape architect Jim Donovan.
Residents Nick Patch and Judy Elson emphasized the SRTS plan offered a chance to emphasize healthier choices and less reliance on fossil fuels.
“This is about starting a groundswell,” Patch said. “This is an opportunity we will be sorry to have missed.”
Silas Towler urged the board to consider the long-term implications, including the recreation center near the school, and the report’s recommendations for changes to the traffic flow on school property, which now mixes cars, buses and pedestrians.
“Plan for the campus we have now,” Towler said. “It’s not just the kids walking, it’s the parents driving and the interaction on the school property.
Selectwoman Sally Torrey weighed in at that point supporting work on the school grounds.
“I think something needs to be done at the school first,” Danyow said.
The presenters also noted the report calls for parking areas at which parents can drop off students, who can then take advantage of upgraded walking paths to reach the school.
“The idea is to serve the whole population even if they can’t walk door to door,” Mattera said.
Cohn also told the selectboard that members of the town SRTS team — Cohn, FCS principal Jo-Ann Taft-Blakely, Chuck Welch of the Vergennes Area Rescue Squad, Vergennes Union High School ninth-grader Emily Weber, Claire Tebbs of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, and parents John Weber, Patch and Sheila Schwaneflugel — hoped the proposals could trigger healthier attitudes on a town-wide basis.
“I see our school as a starting point,” she said.
The report produced by the Ferrisburgh’s team and the VTrans SRTS resource center calls for a number of short- and long-term engineering and non-engineering measures to create safer ways for FCS students to walk or bike to school, and to encourage students to use them.
The process goals included, according to the report, “safe traffic patterns for all modes of transportation;” a community culture in which students prefer to walk or bike to school and that they feel safe doing so and their parents feel comfortable letting them; and year-round paths and sidewalks to the school.
Parents have not felt comfortable, according to surveys, because of narrow road widths, volume and speed of traffic, and unsafe intersections and road crossings.
Recommendations included gravel paths maintained year-round to the Round Barn and Atkins Farm neighborhoods, to the town office buildings, and to Route 7 to link up to the pedestrian-triggered traffic light and a crosswalk there. That light would be accessed by sidewalks along Route 7 from Middlebrook Road.
VTrans said the sidewalks would be necessary with the light. Also recommended are re-striping both Middlebrook and Little Chicago roads to create narrower traveled lanes and two-foot wide pedestrian and bike lanes on either side, plus a lower speed limit and a crosswalk on Little Chicago Road near the school.
Signs on both Little Chicago and Middlebrook roads are suggested to warn drivers of pedestrians, and regular enforcement of speed limits is recommended.
On the school grounds, the report suggests separating school bus and car drop-off areas, and sidewalks that would allow walking students to stay off traveled asphalt. All the engineering changes would require further study and formal design before being put in place. Many are eligible for funding through VTrans’ SRTS Resource Center, according to the report.
The report also suggests many measures to educate children and parents about the benefits of walking and biking and to encourage them to do so, ranging from bike rodeos to new material in physical education classes.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].           

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