Business owner says he's getting a runaround on Putney Road crosswalks

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BRATTLEBORO — One local businessman is frustrated that the state has no plan to install crosswalks across Putney Road for at least another five years.

"There should have been crosswalks 20 years ago, and we shouldn't have to wait for the Putney Road master plan for them," said Christian Stromberg, who recently moved his Saxtons River Distillery from Route 30 to Chickering Drive.

In 2007, the Brattleboro Select Board signed off on a state plan to transform Putney Road by removing the stop lights, building four roundabouts and adding sidewalks on either side of the road.

Over the years, the details of the project have changed, such as the size of the sidewalks and the locations of the roundabouts, but Ken Upmal, Project Manager for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, said the state is in the final stages of preparing for breaking ground. Upmal said VTrans is in the process of finalizing its Act 250 permit applications and securing right-of-ways from property owners along the 1.25-mile stretch of road.

"This is what we call a legacy project," said Upmal. "It's been around a long time."

No sidewalks mean no crosswalks

Stromberg said he has appealed to both the town of Brattleboro and VTrans.

"I was told by the town that they can't have crosswalks because there aren't sidewalks on both sides of Putney Road," Stromberg said. "It would be a crosswalk to nothing. However something, anything is better than nothing, because so far the answer seems to be to not cross Putney Road on foot."

"From a signal equipment standpoint, it would be possible to install pedestrian phases at the existing signals, but this would cost approximately $10,000 per crossing and possibly more depending on sections of sidewalk that might have to be included to make the crossings safe and compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements," wrote Jon Kaplan, VTrans Bicycle and Pedestrian Program Manager, in an email to Stromberg, which Stromberg shared with the Reformer. "This is not work that VTrans would initiate, but the town of Brattleboro could pursue this with their own funds.

For Brattleboro to do so, wrote Kaplan, it would need to apply for a highway access permit to work in state right of way.

"However, I'm sure that, like the state, the town has many needs and limited resources, and would not want to invest in something that in a relatively short time, would become obsolete or replaced," wrote Kaplan.

In that same email thread, Jesse Devlin, Program Manager for the Highway Safety and Design Section at VTrans, also referred Stromberg to the town.

"The town of Brattleboro has a Traffic Safety Committee that has a great deal of public participation, and [Town Manager Peter] Elwell serves as the primary contact for the town," wrote Devlin. "This committee allows for the continued discussion of concerns/needs/actions of the town specific to traffic, pedestrian, bicycling safety. This allows the opportunity to investigate potential town initiated improvements ... as well as creating a unified voice for continued discussion with VTrans."

Stromberg said he will meet with the Traffic Safety Committee next week.

Elwell, in an email to the Reformer, stated because the 1.25 miles of roadway in the master plan belong to the state, "It would be inappropriate for me to speak for VTrans on the aspects of this matter that are specific to Putney Road. However, I can confirm that proper engineering of roads, sidewalks, and crosswalks dictates that a crosswalk needs to connect to a sidewalk on both sides of the road."

'A time-consuming process'

The state has secured most of the right-of-way agreements from more than 50 commercial property owners and is working on a handful of others, said Upmal.

"It's a very time-consuming process," he said.

Upmal said he understands the concerns people like Stromberg have about pedestrian crossings on Putney Road.

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"I can't pull out a portion of the project and accelerate one component," he said. "It's all part of the same permitting and right-of-way process."

Upmal said it could be another five years before the $30-million project gets underway, depending on the permitting process. the construction itself should only take about one year.

"A project of this magnitude and this complexity is extremely challenging, and can't be done quickly," he said. "We are moving forward and committed to this project but we can't just pull out the bike and pedestrian portion and do that ahead of time."

But Stromberg believes the state and the town are overthinking the situation.

"There are current traffic signals that can have crosswalk signals wired to them, the rest is paint," he said.

Will more roundabouts make Putney Road safer?

Stromberg said in addition to his present concerns about crossing Putney Road, he is also concerned about the safety of the proposed roundabouts.

"The Exit 3 roundabout is an example of how bad the future roundabouts can be, regardless of the promises that the new ones will be much better," he said. "Are the roundabout crosswalks going to have red lights so people know to stop when they are pressed? I haven't seen anything regarding how these are supposed to work [for people with disabilities]. Is someone blind able to use one of these crosswalks?"

The roundabouts are proposed for the vicinity of Noah's Lane, Technology Drive, Hannaford Plaza and Black Mountain Road, though their final locations will depend on the completion of the right-of-way negotiations with land owners along the corridor. Two of the rounadabouts will have two lanes and two will be single lane.

Kaplan wrote that studies of roundabouts have shown they are safer for non-motorists because of the slower speed of traffic and "fewer conflict points" like at traditional intersections with traffic signals.

"Unfortunately, what Putney Road represents in its current configuration is the old approach to roadway design, which mostly focused on moving motor vehicles," wrote Kaplan in his email to Stromberg. "The project under design represents the philosophy of 'Complete Streets' and will work better for all roadway users."

Kaplan noted that with the addition of the four roundabouts and two pedestrian crosswalks near the southern end of the project, there will be many opportunities for pedestrians to cross.

"The roundabouts all include crosswalks integrated with the splitter islands that will serve as pedestrian refuge islands," wrote Kaplan. "Of course, this does not address the immediate need resulting from a lack of any crosswalks except at the existing roundabout at the northern end of Putney Road."

'I'm not satisfied'

"It's disappointing to know it will be five years until we can walk across the street," Stromberg told the Reformer. "Crosswalks have been pushed out until the whole Putney Road project is perfect, with full sidewalks, etc. but in the meantime there is nothing and it's dangerous. The state can pay because they should have 20 or more years ago. So, no, I'm not satisfied. I will be satisfied when I see VTrans trucks out there painting the lines and installing the signals."

Rep. Mollie Burke, of Brattleboro, is a member of the House Committee on Transportation. She said VTrans has already invested more than $3 million into the project.

"VTrans has a prioritization process," she said. "I understand that people what their roads done now, but this is a huge project."

Burke said she will continue to have a conversation with VTrans, town officials and other agencies to determine if something can be done about crosswalks between now and when the project gets started, but she didn't hold out too much hope that anything will change soon.

"Maybe we could get a grant, but would anyone want to grant the money for crosswalks knowing they would be torn up when the project gets started."

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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