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Visibility isn’t really the safety issue. It’s speed.

Newfane’s Selectboard is rushing to commit to a two-lane Arch Bridge in Williamsville, but that design decision doesn’t address the problem of getting people to drive more slowly

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, teacher, and columnist as well as a longtime contributor to The Commons. She serves as Newfane Town Moderator.

Williamsville

No one questions the need to replace the antique Arch Bridge, though many have questioned whether a new bridge should have one lane or two.

I think this is the wrong debate. The question we should be asking is: How can we make a replacement bridge and its approaches safe — not just for trucks and cars, but for cyclists and pedestrians as well?

In the public meetings with the Vermont Agency of Transportation, the safety issue that has been discussed almost exclusively is visibility for vehicles crossing the bridge.

But visibility isn’t really the safety issue, either; it’s speed.

And, if you build it, they will speed.

People already speed over the bridge, through the village of Williamsville, and on Grimes Hill Road, where I live. Last year, an 18-year-old driver was going 70 mph when he crashed at my house, in a 35-mph zone. This week, a 30-year-old injured both another driver and himself while speeding down Grimes Hill. There have been other, less spectacular, accidents due to speed in the 12 months in between.

The speed limit at the bridge and through the village is just 25 mph. As far as I can tell, I’m one of the few who complies with it, and when I walk through the village, I wish others would, too.

Most of the people who live in the village would also like traffic to slow down, as posted. Willliamsville would be a lovely, safer, place if cars and trucks didn’t roar through, despite the single-lane bridges currently at either end of town.

* * *

I can imagine that buying a big-ticket item like a bridge is probably as tantalizing as buying a new house or a car. If I were on the Selectboard, I’d probably want all the bells and whistles: two lanes wide enough for good drainage and snow removal, for school buses and emergency trucks, for a pedestrian buffer, on a bridge strong enough to last another 100 years.

We all hope the current bridge will last another five. VTrans doesn’t expect to begin construction until 2020. So what’s driving the need to make this decision quickly is unclear.

What is clear is the current board’s predisposition for a two-lane bridge and an abutter’s threat to deny the town a needed right-of-way unless the new bridge has two lanes. The Selectboard is evidently within its right to decide with neither a hearing nor a vote.

I’m not on the Selectboard. I’ve attended meetings and expressed my different point of view.

I think straight roads and wide bridges make speeding inevitable, as if it were an inalienable right. It allows cars to dominate our landscape, when they’re really just meant to help us move through it.

* * *

Speeding is not unique to Williamsville. The Village of Newfane contracts with the Windham County Sheriff for speed control on Route 30. Enforcement provides the village corporation with income for upkeep of the Union Hall, which it owns. The deterrence also slows traffic.

Other, less hostile, traffic calming measures also work. A few years ago, the Windham Regional Commission helped all the valley towns on Route 30 install dynamic striping, visual cues to reduce speed at the entrance to each village, where the speed limit steps down to 30 mph. The grant funding has faded along with the stripes; it’s now up to each town to maintain them. Newfane hasn’t.

Other traffic calming measures have been suggested over the years, from stop signs to crosswalks to fog lines (the solid white lines on the outside right edge of the lane).

So far, no Newfane Selectboard has been willing to take any of these benign approaches to speeding. Meanwhile, cars crash, emergency services and police are called out, roads are closed, trees are damaged, wires are downed, and parts of cars litter the verge.

* * *

Personally, I think deterrence is generally more effective and certainly friendlier than enforcement, and I see the new bridge design as an opportunity to implement some of the many suggestions that have been proposed over the years, as well as some new ones.

Roads, after all, are public rights of way for pedestrians and cyclists as well as motor vehicles, but it’s speeding vehicles that pose the greatest safety threat to all these users.

Of course, it wouldn’t matter if roads were straight or bridges wide; even traffic calming measures wouldn’t be needed if we’d all just drive the speed limit and follow the law.

What do you think? Leave us a comment

Editor’s note: Our terms of service require you to use your real names. We will remove anonymous or pseudonymous comments that come to our attention. We rely on our readers’ personal integrity to stand behind what they say; please do not write anything to someone that you wouldn’t say to his or her face without your needing to wear a ski mask while saying it. Thanks for doing your part to make your responses forceful, thoughtful, provocative, and civil. We also consider your comments for the letters column in the print newspaper.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #316 (Wednesday, July 29, 2015). This story appeared on page B1.

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