Vergennes city council takes steps to improve pedestrian safety

VERGENNES — Vergennes officials have begun taking steps they believe will lead to safer downtown crosswalks for pedestrians and schoolchildren.
At the Nov. 29 city council meeting, aldermen agreed the city’s Water Tower Fund could be used to pay for some improvements, possibly sooner than later, and added Aldermen Matt Chabot and Mark Koenig to a task force that is looking at ways to improve pedestrian safety.
Options already on the table include button-triggered lighted pedestrian signs that can be placed at either end of crosswalks, flags that can be picked up from buckets at the ends of crosswalks and used by pedestrians to alert motorists, bulb-outs to shorten crosswalks and slow traffic, fully signaled lights that would stop traffic for pedestrians at crosswalks, and more mid-road signs reminding drivers to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks.
The issue of safe walking in truck- and traffic-congested downtown Vergennes has been a hot topic for years. But it was put back on the front burner on Nov. 15, when a dozen residents met with the council to describe near misses in crosswalks and brainstorm solutions.
The issue was back on the agenda on Nov. 29, when council members said they were ready to act as soon as some research was done to learn the best way forward.
“This is something the city council should absolutely get behind,” Chabot said.
Joining Chabot and Koenig on the task force are residents Stacey Raphael and Carrie McFarland, Development Review Board Chairman Jason Farrell, Planning Commission Chairman Shannon Haggett and Police Chief George Merkel.
Mayor Bill Benton said on Thursday last week he hoped they would meet four or five times and then come up with recommendations.
Also supporting the effort have been and will be Addison County Regional Planning Commission land use planner Claire Tebbs, who will consult with the task force, and transportation/energy planner Josh Donabedian, who met with city planners on Nov. 28 and, according to Benton, brought some welcome long-term news.
Donabedian, Benton said, “indicated the Otter Creek bridge is just about to enter onto VTrans’ village bridge schedule,” meaning, in Benton’s words, “I guess we are the next one up in Addison County for replacement.”
The bridge is too narrow for a sidewalk on the north side or for safe bike travel. A wider bridge with two sidewalks and a bike lane would allow easier access to the two islands in the falls and the Otter Creek basin area from downtown, and provide safer foot travel to the city center for many residents who live west of the bridge.
Benton said it is his understanding a new bridge could be installed in six to 10 years.
“That’s not forever,” he said.
In the long run, Benton said, the city could also look into extending the sidewalk on the north side of Main Street to meet a new sidewalk on the north side of the bridge. Vergennes could then also add a crosswalk nearer the east end of the bridge, and those two moves would help make the problematic intersection of Main and South Water streets safer.
Also ready to help Vergennes with shorter-term improvements is Local Motion, a Burlington nonprofit that specializes in walking and biking safety and other forms of alternative transportation.
“They’ve offered services for us to investigate options and alternatives for crosswalks,” Benton said, adding there would be no charge for the help.
For example, Benton said, if the city’s pedestrian safety task force identifies a problem intersection, Benton said Local Motion could use Google Earth aerial photos to mock up a detailed proposal that could be shared with task force and council members. 
Local Motion deputy director Jason Van Driesche on Wednesday also joined Benton, Tebbs and other task force members on a tour of downtown intersections. Van Driesche raised another possibility — using “bollards” (posts that can be temporarily bolted into pavement) to show on a temporary basis how a permanent bulb-out would affect traffic.
“You can put them in for a month or a season and see how they work,” Benton said, adding that they are made of hard plastic that would break if struck by a car.
Benton said the tour focused on the intersections of Green Street with School Street and New Haven Road and several intersections along Main Street between the bridge and City Hall, especially those with South Maple and South Water streets.
At the Nov. 29 council meeting Benton raised the possibility of the pushbutton flashing pedestrian signs on some of those intersections. He said those signs were similar to, but cheaper, at $4,700, than the flashing beacons used by Middlebury at some crosswalks at a cost of about $7,100.
Alderman Lowell Bertrand suggested using Water Tower Fund money to install some of them immediately. Some favored the idea, but the council agreed to wait for a task force recommendation before acting.
City Manager Mel Hawley added the flashing signs work best if they are not partially blocked from view by parked cars or bulb-outs.
“In higher visibility these things really work,” Hawley said.
Council members also discussed the flags that pedestrians can use in crosswalks to alert drivers.
Koenig said he had looked into their use and learned the city of Kirkland, Wash., saw a 60 percent decrease in problems after a program to install flags at all crosswalks. But Alderman Jeff Fritz said he had regularly done business in Kirkland and the program was proving increasingly less effective, and that stolen flags had become an issue.
Hawley said he had some concerns about flags and would rather focus on “culture and enforcement” as solutions to getting drivers to honor crosswalks.
“One thing I’m always afraid of is that people think flags stop cars,” he said.
Council members and Hawley last Tuesday also discussed street lights near crosswalks, both making them brighter and focusing them on crosswalks.
And they all agreed on Benton’s summary of the discussion.
“We have an issue that we feel that is important to deal with,” the mayor said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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