Saturday April 13, 2013

DUMMERSTON - When Dummerston officials asked that the town's name be included on new highway signs, they probably didn't anticipate entering into an existential debate.

But the state's denial of that request - which read, in part, "there is no there, there" - has led to some confusion as well as a fair number of quips.

A state transportation engineer went on to give a detailed explanation as to why Dummerston doesn't qualify for mention at Exits 3 and 4 on Interstate 91. Nonetheless, the issue has left some town officials both amused and frustrated.

"I didn't know whether to laugh or cry," Selectboard member Bill Holiday said.

The question of Dummerston's inclusion on highway signs arose as the state prepares to improve those signs along I-91 from the Massachusetts border to Exit 6, said Matt Mann, a senior planner at Windham Regional Commission.

Mann said there is a wider effort to upgrade road signs' font size and reflectivity. That led some officials to also wonder whether "a sign could be reworked, or an additional sign could be included," he said.

"We're really trying to get more specific with what each exit is - guiding the traveler with more information," Mann said.

Mann said he is working with affected towns and then sending municipal officials' ideas and opinions to the state Agency of Transportation.

In Dummerston, officials noted that - even though I-91 runs through the town and part of Exit 4 is within its boundaries - there is no mention of the town on any highway sign.

Holiday acknowledged that such exposure can be "a double-edged sword."

"There was some talk of, 'Maybe it's not such a good idea,'" he said.

But in the end, the Selectboard decided to ask VTrans to add "Dummerston" on signs at Exits 3 and 4.

In an e-mail response, VTrans Traffic Operations Engineer Amy Gamble said she was "inclined to continue to omit Dummerston from the interstate guide signs."

"The main purpose behind the town names we select for the guide signs is to help drivers orient themselves as to the state highway routes that are on the guide signs," Gamble wrote.

"While U.S. 5 does indeed pass through the town of Dummerston, there is no 'dot on the map' for Dummerston itself, and neither the villages of East Dummerston nor Center Dummerston are located on U.S. 5," Gamble added. "From the driver's perspective, 'there is no there, there.'"

That left some Dummerston officials shaking their heads, with reactions including:

Holiday: "You can't get there from here."

Selectboard Chairman Zeke Goodband: "I think it goes a long way toward explaining why I wake up some mornings and wonder, 'Where am I?'"

Selectboard member Steve Glabach: "We're not a dot on the map, so we don't exist."

Glabach also pointed out that VTrans maintains a presence on Route 5 in town.

"This comes from an agency that has a center right here in Dummerston - the AOT. Incredible," Glabach said.

In a later e-mail to the Reformer, Gamble said it's not unusual to omit town names from highway signs - even when an exit lies in that town.

"Determining what destinations to sign for at an interchange is not as straightforward as it might seem. We make judgment calls as to the primary destinations a traveler might access from that exit or what will help them orient themselves as to their location, and it is not always the town in which the interchange is physically located," Gamble wrote.

She said there are many such examples in Vermont.

"Along I-91, Exit 8 (Ascutney/Windsor) is in the town of Weathersfield, Exit 11 (White River Junction) is in the town of Hartford, Exit 12 (Wilder) is in the town of Hartford and Exit 27 (Newport) is in the town of Derby," Gamble wrote. "On I-89, Exit 6 (South Barre) is in the town of Berlin, Exit 8 (Montpelier) is also partially in the town of Berlin and Exit 17 (Milton) is in the town of Colchester."

A similar principle applies to Exits 3 and 4 on I-91, Gamble said.

"If I am a traveler looking at a Vermont map, I-91 Exit 4 is right next to the Putney dot on the map, and the exit is signed as such.

There is no dot on the map for Dummerston, and the small villages of East Dummerston and Center Dummerston are off the state highway system and are not primary destinations for large numbers of travelers," she wrote. "Exit 3 is currently signed for Brattleboro and Keene, N.H., the major destinations on the routes accessed from that exit."

Holiday said the discussion is over, and the issue is not a major one for Dummerston. But he's not pleased with how the process played out. "We did put some time into this," Holiday said. "And it was time wasted."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.