Route 9 rebuild slated for 2021
MARLBORO — Attendees at Friday morning's Agency of Transportation meeting at the Marlboro Town House learned there is a $14 million project in the pipeline to rebuild 12.5 miles of Route 9 between Wilmington and Brattleboro. That project, which is still in the planning stages, might include straightening some portions of the road and adding shoulders where there are none. The project won't get started until 2021.
Jesse Devlin, AOT's highway safety and design program manager, told the approximately 40 people gathered at the meeting that much of the prep work going into the project was done following Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, when 13 inches of rain swelled the Whetstone Brook and washed out many portions of Route 9.
"This is the time we are going to try to implement some of those improvements," said Devlin.
Devlin, along with Joe Flynn, the secretary of the Agency of Transportation, Wayne Symonds, director and chief engineer for AOT's Highway Division, and Col. William Elovirta, the director of AOT's Enforcement and Safety Division, were in Marlboro at the invitation of local legislators to hear people's concerns about Route 9.
There were plenty of complaints about various blind curves, the passing zone near Marlboro Elementary School, the speed of vehicles traveling on the road, overweight and oversize vehicles, and the number of commercial trucks traveling between Bennington and Brattleboro.
"The times I come up from Brattleboro I encounter three or four oversize loads in my 12-minute trip," said Charlene Morse, of Marlboro, who also noted that the sounds of jake braking — when a driver lets off on the diesel to slow down his or her tractor trailer — is disturbing.
One man, who identified himself as Bill, said he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and when a driver wakes him up late at night by jake braking he automatically reaches for his "piece."
Jake brakes can't be banned, because they are a safety device, noted Elovirta, but they can be restricted in certain areas. He offered to look at jake braking along Route 9. In the past, he said, he's spoken with representatives of the Vermont Truck & Bus Association about jake breaks and the association has been responsive.
Cathy Fuller, who lives at Turners Corner in Marlboro, where Hamilton Road meets Route 9, said she has been witness to a number of accidents on that portion of road. Fortunately, she said, since a guardrail was installed, the fatal accidents have decreased.
However, she said, the condition of the road itself is affecting her quality of life. "We are currently listening every night to the tractor trailers hitting a hole in the middle of the road," said Fuller. "It's enough to rattle the windows in the house."
Rep. Emily Long, D-Windham 5, represents Newfane, Townshend and Marlboro in the State House. She read an email from one of her constituents, Mary Peterson, who said the situation at Turners Corner could be ameliorated by installing a convex mirror so folks on Hamilton Road can see traffic coming before they pull out onto Route 9. What would also help, read Long, would be a sign warning people they are approaching a blind curve. The state could also consider adding a little more room or another lane where cars traveling west could merge without having to worry about fast approaching vehicles from behind.
Forrest Holzapfel, Marlboro Town Clerk, asked if AOT would give consideration to the idea of putting in a left turn lane at the junction of Route 9 and South Road, just west of the elementary school, where the westbound passing lane ends.
"We would love to see a 'bypass' lane to make that left turn so people won't be rear-ended at a high speed," he said, adding that his mother, Michelle Holzapfel, would gladly donate land to make that effort happen.
Holzapfel, who lives next to the school, said he has also noticed some reduction in speed since the state installed flashing speed radar signs near the school.
"Traffic is going slower in general," he said. "Signals make people pay attention."
Gail Chaine, the administrative assistant and bookkeeper at the school, agreed with Holzapfel, but said trucks still barrel through. Part of the reason, she said, is because it's "an anomaly," especially for people not familiar with the road, to have all those factors in one spot — a passing zone, left turning traffic, a school, and the left turn onto South Road nearby, where the passing lane disappears.
"The [westbound] passing lane could be re-engineered," said Chaine. "It could go away or end sooner, or maybe add a turning lane."
Having a passing lane where people in cars and school bus drivers are waiting to turn left into the school parking lot is a recipe for disaster, said Pat Deangelo, of Marlboro.
"And no one pays attention to the 40-mph speed zone," she said. "They just fly by. Put that on your priority list."
Devlin pointed out that it's not actually a passing lane, but "a truck climbing lane" for people to pass slow trucks. Without the lane, he said, a slowdown could cause issues. "We don't want to cause a new problem by taking the lane away," he said.
"It's a passing lane," insisted Dan Dennis, of Marlboro.
"And there's lots of trucks doing the passing," added Jonathan Morse, also of Marlboro.
State Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Windham 2-1 (representing Brattleboro), said the issues for West Brattleboro are just as important as those in Marlboro and Wilmington.
Part of the problem, she said, "is tourists behaving differently than people who live here."
She related a story of an out-of-stater stopping in the travel lane to pluck a fall leaf off a tree, to the understanding chuckles of many in the crowd. She said maybe AOT could develop a partnership with the Division of Tourism and Marketing to inform visitors about the roads and expectations about how to travel on them.
Doug Cox, of West Brattleboro, said dropping the speed limit along Route 9 might dissuade many commercial drivers from using it if it would add to their delivery times. "State planners seem open to thinking in this direction," noted Cox in a follow-up email to the Reformer.
In an email to the Reformer, Kate Anderson, of West Brattleboro, said speed and noise are not only safety issues. "They impact the very welfare of our neighborhoods, our villages," she wrote. "While goods and services dependent on transportation are vital so is the ability to live and move in a safe and healthy environment. When this is under such stress, we are impacted. We can do better."
Flynn noted that AOT, which oversees VTrans and the Deparment of Motor Vehicles, has a budget of $614 million. None of that comes from the general fund but, instead, comes from fuel taxes and various fees collected by DMV. The two biggest costs are for personnel — 1,300 of them in AOT, and paving, at $100 million. Most of the rest of the money for roads in Vermont that don't belong to municipalities comes from the federal government, usually a 90/10 or 80/20 split, depending on the type of road.
"We have a very finite pool of state dollars every year," said Flynn.
Flynn also mentioned that Vermont gets back more from the federal government than it puts in for fuel taxes because of the advocacy of Vermont's Congressional delegation in Washington, D.C. "There are many states that are not happy with the inverse return Vermont gets," he added.
To qualify for federal aid, the state still needs to come up with its 10 or 20 percent share, said Flynn, adding, "We have 67 percent of what we need to maintain the entire network over time. We just don't have enough money."
"The bigger question ... over the past few years, the number of large trucks ... has tremendously increased," said Michael Singer, of Wilmington. "Why are they not on highways built for them." While it's acceptable for trucks making local deliveries to be on the road, he said, why is it being used as a through route for trucks getting from one place to another without stopping?
Because the state takes federal money to maintain many of its roads, said Symonds, "We need to share the highway with everyone."
"I am not aware of any power the AOT or the state of Vermont has to disallow the use of state roads," said Flynn. "We can't penalize commercial trucks just because they're commercial trucks."
At least two people noted that 20 years ago, AOT officials were traveling around the state talking about big projects, but then nothing happened.
"We were planning giant projects everywhere," acknowledged Symonds. "We had projects promised all over the state to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. We overpromised and completely understated the complexity."
About the same time, noted Symonds, the permitting process changed, including the addition of Act 250. The state's environmental review process doesn't regulate just private property owners, but also state projects like roads, highways and bridges, and that's not a bad thing, Symonds noted, considering the state of the environment and everything else project engineers have to consider.
A new east-west highway, not in the same footprint of Route 9, would be the best solution, but then you run into issues such as funding, environmental damage and the loss of revenue to towns where traffic doesn't pass through anymore, he said.
Ashley Bies, chairman of the Marlboro Conservation Commission, spoke about the importance of "wildlife linkage," or maintaining or creating corridors for wildlife to travel across the landscape. He said Route 9 is one of the major impediments in all of New England blocking wildlife movement from north to south. He said this has consequences, both for wildlife and the people who might be injured in accidents related to collisions with wildlife.
In Marlboro alone, Bies said he has identified three "critical wildlife crossings" that AOT should look at while planning the 2021 project.
Flynn asked Bies to work with the Windham Regional Commission to present that information to AOT.
The meeting was arranged by state Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Windham 2-2, a member of the House Committee on Transportation.
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or email@example.com.
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