VTrans eyes route repairs needed for safer biking

MIDDLEBURY — In considering the findings of a Vermont Agency of Transportation study that measured the popularity of bike corridors, the Addison County cyclists who came to a hearing last Thursday evening found the results less than convincing.
Lincoln resident Alison Parker spoke for many of the 17 people at the VTrans hearing at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center when she noted that while the majority of the state roads in Addison County were not frequently used by cyclists, they were precisely where cyclists want to ride if they weren’t so dangerous.
“These are beautiful roads and we would love to ride on them if they were made safe,” she said.
On a map at the meeting, Parker circled the western side of the Champlain Valley in red pen and wrote next to it: “All very desirable to ride on if they were safe!” 
The VTrans report is important because it sets the stage for future bike-related infrastructure projects on Vermont roadways.
Those interested in making Vermont roads safer for bicyclists were connected via Vermont Interactive Television facilities around the state, including at Hannaford. Participants at sites in Lyndonville, Montpelier, Newport, Rutland and Williston totaled 19. Fourteen people streamed the presentation online.     
Viewers observed preliminary results from the first of a series of studies by the VTrans office of Policy, Planning and Intermodal Development that began in September. Erica Wygonik, a project team manager for consultancy RSG, said that the overall goal of the project was to accommodate cyclists on the most important corridors of state roadways
“The goal of this particular phase is to focus on classifying the state highway system according to the most important roadway segments for bicycling,” she said.  
Jon Kaplan, bicycle and pedestrian program manager for VTrans, said the project would help manage spending decisions.
“We have limited resources and so we need to figure out how best to prioritize those,” he said. “With some prioritization or understanding about which roads in the state are most important to bicyclists, we can prioritize those limited resources.”
From September through January, the Department gathered public opinion about the most popular routes for recreation, leisure, errands and commuting to work or school with the help of a WikiMap. A total of 2,123 unique visitors to the map indicated popular routes, “liked” or “disliked” selections and made comments.
VTrans also collected data from 6,000 users of Strava, a smartphone application that lets users track and share popular routes, and collected data on popular routes and destinations for bicycle tourism. 
The project identified 2,426 miles of state roads, 457 miles (19 percent) located mostly around town or city centers were found to be “highly desirable,” 783 miles (32 percent) were “moderately desirable” and a majority of 1,186 miles (49 percent) of roads were labeled as “least desirable.”
Following description of the study’s methodology, participants at locations around the state broke out into their respective locations to examined a draft map of the state.
In Addison County, Routes 125, 17, 22A and 30 were highlighted yellow, indicating them as “least desirable.” State roads around Bristol, Vergennes, Middlebury and Brandon were blue for “highly desirable” while Route 7, arguably the busiest road in the county for north and southbound traffic, was green for “moderately desirable.”
Middlebury participants didn’t think these results reflected what bikers wanted.
Randi Kritkausky criticized the methodology used in the project.
“We were all talking about what wonderful routes they are and how much we would like to bike it and occasionally some of us do, but we don’t bike them because of safety concerns,” the Whiting resident said. “If people are ranking roads very low because of safety, how do you know that it’s an undesirable biking route? Our reaction was those are highly desirable routes but they’re currently not safe enough.” 
As a result, Kritkausky said, he prefers to ride on packed gravel and dirt roads around where he lives in Whiting or drive to Quebec, where he rides on designated and maintained bikeways that are fully integrated into the flow of traffic (See story in this coming Thursday’s edition).
The feeling in Middlebury was echoed around the state, with cyclists in the Northeast Kingdom and in Chittenden County voicing concern that because their state roads were labeled as less-than-desirable, they would be left behind when considering improvement projects.
RSG’s Erica Wygonik attempted to convince them otherwise.
“This isn’t about VTrans finding a way to say no, this is about finding a way to say yes,” she said. “If a project comes in that’s on a desirable corridor, that’s an area that VTrans is going to prioritize bicycle-specific infrastructure.”
Feedback on the maps will be collected until at least May 15. The next phase will identify gaps in the most desirable bicycle road corridors and the final phase will identify specific areas to be considered for improvements. A final report is anticipated by the end of May. 
To see and comment on the online WikiMap, and to learn more about the VTrans bike plan, go online to http://vtransplanning.vermont.gov/bikeplan.

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