Ferrisburgh weighs in on Rt. 7 intersection safety plans

FERRISBURGH — About 70 Ferrisburgh residents packed the upper-level meeting room of their town office building this past Tuesday to meet with two Vermont Agency of Transportation engineers about the intersection of Route 7 and Old Hollow and Stage roads, an intersection they and Ferrisburgh officials agree is dangerous.
At the meeting they learned from VTrans engineers Erin Parizo and David Saladino it was probably not a matter of whether the northernmost Route 7 intersection in Ferrisburgh would be improved, but how and when. 
Early during the meeting Saladino said VTrans had studied the intersection in 2009, 2012 and 2017, but had concluded the intersection did not warrant safety upgrades other than the left-turn lanes and other tweaks added in recent years.
Now, he said, new crash information — VTrans research discovered 21 crashes in the vicinity in the past five years — showed it clearly needed further safety improvements.
“Long story short, this does have the warrants to justify a signal or a roundabout,” Saladino said, adding that the data VTrans and its consulting firm have uncovered in a study over the past few weeks “aligns with the comments we’ve heard” from residents.
The VTrans schedule calls for studying of the alternatives and presentation of the conclusions at an April 16 meeting. According to the engineers, that study will consider traffic volume of 11,000 vehicles a day, accident data, and public feedback. VTrans will make a selection later in April and issue a final report in May or June. 
Parizo said that if all goes smoothly the intersection could get signals “in a couple years,” while she and Saladino said a roundabout could take longer, maybe three to five years, because the agency would have to obtain easements or possibly take a small amount of land.
Both of those timetables were not well received — the crowd murmured its unhappiness. 
Resident and former selectman Jim Warden said he hoped VTrans could find a way to move quicker. 
“We have a problem that as soon as possible should be taken care of,” Warden said. “I see near misses constantly.”
Dozens of residents made it clear they preferred traffic lights to a roundabout. They said pedestrians need to cross to get to businesses Cookie Love and Mobil Short Stop, the post office, and north- and southbound bus stops. Some also said they were concerned about the many cyclists, especially on tours, who pass through the intersection.
“I don’t know how a roundabout addresses issues like pedestrian access and bike safety,” said Old Hollow Road resident Nick Patch.
Others, like resident Clark Hinsdale, worried about drivers navigating what is still a relatively new traffic-control feature in Vermont.
“It you’re not experienced with them, it’s just wild,” Hinsdale said.
Saladino and Parizo said roundabouts, which are favored by the Addison County Regional Planning Commission for their ability to keep traffic moving steadily, can be designed to enhance safety.
 “We could accommodate pedestrians,” Parizo said, adding that bicyclists “would be encouraged” to go with the traffic flow.
After the meeting Parizo was asked how roundabouts could provide for pedestrian safety.
She said roundabouts typically include not only a central island, but also dividing islands on the roads that approach them. A roundabout at this site would probably include four islands, two on Route 7 and one each on Stage and Old Hollow roads. Each of those islands would be flanked by two pedestrian crosswalks, limiting crossing distances to half the width of each road. And those islands would be large enough to provide safe havens for pedestrians, Parizo said.
As for bicycle safety, Parizo said trucks might go through the roundabout at up to 20 mph. Later, in an email, she said that figure might have been a little high (“My gut tells me 20 mph is still higher than they’d be able to navigate it”), but that cyclists might want to become pedestrians in dealing with a major highway roundabout.
“Unless there was a shared use path facility in the area, it would be suggested that a cyclist either navigate the roundabout acting as a vehicle would, or walk their bike on the sidewalks and use the crossings as a pedestrian,” Parizo wrote. “I definitely understand that the first approach would only feel comfortable for a very confident rider and that if it were me, I would likely err on the side of crossing as a pedestrian on foot.”
Residents were skeptical at Tuesday’s meeting.
Old Hollow Road resident Craig Heindel said in his travels around the state he has seen roundabouts work well, but because of the businesses, post office and bus stops at this intersection he was dubious.
“This doesn’t feel like a safe situation for a roundabout,” Heindel said.
Part-time Long Point resident Susan Lackey suggested lights might be a better solution because traffic volume grows in the summer, and lights could be seasonally adjusted.
“It’s almost like summer creates a rush hour all day long,” Lackey said.
Old Hollow Road resident Kurt Plank said one problem Saladino said traffic lights created — “traffic pulses” after vehicles backed up at red lights — at times work in residents’ favor because they “actually offer an opportunity to get on Route 7” for frustrated drivers waiting on side roads.
Ferrisburgh Fire Chief Bill Wager, also a police officer, weighed in in favor of traffic signals, saying that both he and his department have responded to too many accidents in the area, and that he has seen — and heard — too many close calls.
“Probably the best thing is stopping the traffic,” Wager said, adding, “I’ve been at that Mobil station, and I don’t know how many times I’ve heard brakes squealing.”
 Residents also explained other problems with the intersection. Hinsdale and others said waiting drivers can be confused when other drivers approach the intersection and use a turn signal, and the waiting motorists don’t know where the approaching drivers are going to turn — into one of the businesses or onto a side road.
“We have a curb-cut problem on three of the four corners,” Hinsdale said.
Another resident summed up the feelings of many: “My daughter is learning to drive, and I’m terrified of her using that intersection.”
The last comment of the night went to resident Art Cohn, and it drew applause from almost all in the crowd.
Cohn said he might consider a roundabout if it could be demonstrated it was clearly superior to a set of traffic lights. But given what he saw as a pressing need and the difference in the potential timetables of a couple years for one and up to five years for another, he had developed a strong preference for one option in the course of the meeting.
“It it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other, give me the traffic lights,” Cohn said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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