Citizens and city council discuss dangers to pedestrians & cyclists

VERGENNES — Many of the dozen residents at last week’s city council meeting recounted near misses they have had as pedestrians on Vergennes streets. They joined with council members to brainstorm possible solutions.
Ideas included adding flashing lights, flags and more signs to city crosswalks; adding crosswalks; tweaking traffic signals; restoring a crossing guard cut from the Vergennes Union Elementary School budget; and following Safe Routes to School guidelines.
Council members and residents alike also talked about improving the pedestrian “culture” in Vergennes so that more people walk and more drivers respect crosswalks.
“It has to be a culture in Vergennes that we stop, and have more people on the streets,” resident Kathy Rossier said.
Much of the focus of the discussion at the Nov. 15 meeting was on children and crosswalks.
Rossier suggested taking a page out of Middlebury’s playbook and offering flags for pedestrians to carry at crosswalks; those are stored at buckets on both sides of the street at some Middlebury crossings.
Mayor Bill Benton said that tactic might help, but added, “The research is not really supportive.”
Resident Sarah Hale suggested more freestanding mid-road signs that remind motorists that state law requires them to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks.
“I just wish every one of our streets and our crosswalks had one of these in it,” Hale said. “It makes a difference.”
Public works head Jim Larrow said those signs are expensive ($250 apiece, per City Manager Mel Hawley) and often get destroyed by trucks trying to make turns; he said the city lost two this past summer.
“We’d just have to budget a lot more,” Larrow said.
Hawley said the city’s larger roads already have roadside crosswalk signs, but not all drivers honor them.
“The problem is just people who are trying to fly through Vergennes,” he said.
Hawley added that another recent improvement made in Middlebury might be more effective, if also more expensive: pedestrian-triggered flashing lights at crosswalks.
Resident Jen Johnson agreed with that concept. 
“Signage is a real important thing. The bigger, and the flashier, too, the better,” Johnson said.
Resident and planning commission member Stacy Raphael suggested the council embrace the Safe Routes to School template, which includes educating students and residents about safe walking and biking and encouraging more of each, working with police to discourage unsafe driving, and making changes to infrastructure — such as the ideas discussed at the meeting — to improve safety.
Raphael also pointed to a number of pedestrian and bike safety improvements recommended in the recently written “Vergennes Basin Master Plan,” including:
•  Pedestrian signals on the intersections of Main Street with Monkton Road and Green Street, and traffic lights at its intersection with Macdonough Drive.
•  Striped bike lanes on Main Street and Macdonough Drive, and a sidewalk extension on Macdonough Drive.
•  A sidewalk, bike lane and traffic calming measures on the Otter Creek bridge.
Johnson focused on that narrow bridge and the problem it poses for residents and their children who live, as she does, on the west side of Otter Creek.
“We’ve got a whole neighborhood of kids in my neck of the woods,” Johnson said.
City officials over the years have studied options for adding sidewalks to the bridge, but the price tag has stalled action.
The bridge problem would be much easier to solve “if it were eight feet wider,” said Benton. He said that adding signs at either end asking drivers to slow down might help.
Planner and Development Review Board chairman Jason Farrell spoke of the fear he had watching his children learning to navigate Main Street, and the problem of cars passing other cars stopped to make turns posing dangers to pedestrians.
Police Chief George Merkel said in many cases those passes are illegal, and in response to another question said he would tell his officers to whenever possible patrol the intersections of Green with Main and School streets during the hours when students were going to and from school.
Merkel agreed children were at the greatest risk, and said nighttime hours were also dangerous, citing a recent incident when he didn’t see a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
“The greatest problem you have is visibility,” Merkel said. “When you have little kids, they have no vertical profile.”
Alderman and Vergennes Partnership President Renny Perry said many of the pedestrian-safety items are included in the application for renewal of Vergennes Downtown Designation status that the partnership is now preparing, but cautioned that adding pedestrian-triggered lights and tinkering with the timing of the downtown lights will not come cheaply.
“Some of these things are very expensive,” Perry said, citing $100,000 for traffic signal changes as an example.
Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Adam Lougee referred the council to a 2012 study his agency prepared that offers suggestions for city bike and pedestrian safety (…).
Included in its many recommendations are suggestions for additional crosswalks and for pedestrian lights at existing crosswalks at key downtown intersections.
Benton said the council would look at ideas from all quarters and determine which could be put in place sooner and which might be part of a longer-term effort.
“Hopefully in the next couple of months we’ll have a handle on that,” he said.
Benton pledged the council would not treat the issue lightly.
“We’ll take your comments seriously,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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