NEWFANE—Residents in Newfane village want drivers to slow their rolls on Route 30 and for the Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) to step up to help in a more substantial way than it has to date.
Patricia Johnson and Aaron Naparstek, the two members of the Newfane Traffic Calming Committee, say the situation requires more than signage, which AOT has provided.
“People are ripping along on a curvy road,” says Naparstek.
Johnson would like to see Route 30 through all the villages from Brattleboro to Pawlet — 112 miles — become a “traffic calming corridor,” and she’d like to find a federal grant “to get us the same signage announcing the villages for all of them,” which would make the need to slow down more apparent to drivers.
Like all non-interstate highways in Vermont, Route 30 has a speed limit of 50 mph, unless otherwise posted. In the West River Valley, the speed limit drops to 40 mph as motorists approach each village, and then drops to 30 mph in the villages themselves.
But Newfane village is comprised of just 50 homes, and Johnson and Naparstek don’t see a lot of folks minding the speed limit — an assertion backed up by a state study that found that a full 75 percent of the vehicles are speeding.
“There’s a real palpable energy and sound you can hear when people are speeding,” says Johnson, who lives on Route 30 in an historic farmhouse. “I can feel it and hear it in my house, in my kitchen, away from the road.
“I just feel Vermont needs to protect its character and history and traffic regulation is one way to do that. And the kids are feeling that. They’re below age 10, and they were shocked at the speed of the traffic going by when they are walking on the sidewalks.”
Some children and parents from the village have been so worried, they have made dozens of signs asking motorists to slow down and erected them along the roadway.
Johnson also notes more people are walking — by themselves or with their dogs — as they continue to work from home, so the villages have become more active. At the same time, more people are visiting the area now that pandemic restrictions have been lifted.
“Our primary concern is speed enforcement, and the second is pedestrian safety,” she says.
Enforcement is a problem
Somewhat complicating matters is the issue of who will enforce the speed limit.
None of the towns in the West River Valley has a police department. Towns either contract with the Windham County Sheriff’s Office or the Vermont State Police for police coverage, and both agencies are shorthanded.
Newfane Village has contracted with the Windham County Sheriff’s office to do traffic enforcement in the past. Johnson said that was funded with the revenue from speeding tickets — usually, about $6,000 annually.
However, in 2019–20, no revenue was brought in so at the Village Annual Meeting in 2020, residents voted not to contract with the sheriff’s office. At this year’s meeting, set for Aug. 22, Johnson intends to recommend that residents reinstate the contract.
“The sheriff’s in a bad position, too. If you design the road to encourage speeding, people are going to speed, and if you ask law enforcement to solve that problem, it’s not fair to law enforcement, either,” she said.
In 2020, the Windham County Sheriff’s Office located its speed cart at the north end of the village on Route 30 across from 638 Vt. 30, by Kennett & Son’s Auto Repair, now the Lost Mile Garage.
From July 27 to Aug. 13 of that year, 10,306 cars passed the cart heading south. Of them, 75 percent were traveling above the 30 mph speed limit.
Specifically, 291 vehicles registered speeds of 50 to 97 mph, 1,363 vehicles registered speeds of 45 to 49 mph, and 3,448 vehicles registered speeds of 40 to 44 mph. The remaining vehicles traveled under 39 mph.
The speed limit had been posted to 30 mph a quarter mile before the speed cart.
Johnson also thinks AOT should make the village a no-passing zone, and she wants painted crosswalks, which, she says, AOT said can’t be done unless they are connecting two sidewalks and have some sort of ramp for American with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance — even if both the road being crossed and the sidewalk are flat.
“I drove the entire corridor,” says Johnson. “Townshend, Jamaica, Manchester — they all have three crosswalks, and there are none in Newfane, the county seat, with the courthouse and many thriving businesses.
“The villages are significant to the personality of Vermont and why people love Vermont, and yet the traffic going through them is very discouraging,” she continues.
“Some people don’t even realize they were in the village after driving past the 30 mph sign announcing the village when [AOT] did the audit,” Johnson asserts. “The signs are clearly not working. More signs also won’t work.”
She refers to a Road Safety Audit Report (RSAR) conducted by AOT on Sept. 22, 2020, after which the agency gave the town more signs.
The AOT, in collaboration with the Windham Regional Commission, conducted a study on the road in 2005 to see if a traffic calming method, dynamic striping, would be effective.
Described in the report as “an experimental psycho-perceptive method,” dynamic striping is “intended to reduce driving speed with visual cues,” the report explains.
“Dynamic striping, not unlike speed humps, uses a series of transverse markings of increasing widths and decreasing distances between the stripes. These are projected to reduce average vehicle speeds at the edges of each village by increasing driver awareness and providing an illusion of increasing speed along with reduced lane width.”
The study concluded that dynamic striping was “not compelling” because of wide statistical variability in the data, but noted that “this study proves that [speed reduction] increases over time due to driver awareness and recognition.”
The report concluded that a behavioral study would be warranted “due to the wide ranging effectiveness at the various traffic calming locations.”
The final summary ended with questions: “One final consideration is the location of the dynamic striping zones. If they were moved closer to the actual village limits, would they prove to be more effective? Could there be a residual cognitive effect between the direct associations of the zones to the village limits?”
Town responds to traffic audit
According to AOT Public Outreach Manager Amy Tatko, the agency provided the report to the town of Newfane on Nov. 30, 2020.
The Selectboard reviewed the document and on May 10, 2021 sent a letter asking AOT to consider implementing dynamic striping at the village entrances and an additional 30 mph sign.
The board also asked AOT to evaluate hidden drive signs for 631–638 Route 30 and requested locations at each end of the village for town-installed “radar feedback” signs.
The letter from the town goes on to state that establishing a no-passing zone for the village and adding “pedestrian caution” signage were discussed at the audit but “not written into the report.”
Tatko says AOT responded to the town on May 17 with a synopsis of intended actions:
• Post the 30 mph speed limit sign at the north end.
• Identify locations for establishing signage to indicate a pedestrian zone within the village.
• Evaluate the need for installing hidden drive signs in the hill area.
• Identify, for the town, two locations for radar feedback signs to help the town with its application for a permit for the signs.
“All of those action items have been completed and follow-on sign work was completed,” Tatko said Tuesday.
“AOT issued a work order for the sign improvements on June 17,” she said, including the speed limit signs, pedestrian zone warning signs, and the hidden drive sign. The signs were installed on July 6, she reports.
“We have also proposed locations for the radar feedback signs but are not certain at this time whether AOT permitting services has received a permit application from the town,” she added.
Tatko confirmed that a discussion about the dynamic striping request during the road safety audit was not included in the final report, “due to findings from our research section indicating that dynamic stripping has been found to be marginally effective in reducing speeds and is very cumbersome for maintenance.”
“The request for a no-passing zone would have to go through the Traffic Committee due to the regulatory nature of this request,” she continued. “Our response to the town explained that they would need to submit a letter to initiate this, as is the case with all regulatory issues. To our knowledge, we have not yet received this letter.”
Committee members critical of AOT approach
Though Tatko believes “the action items listed show that AOT is engaged in this process and responsive to the town,” the two committee members are critical of the agency’s response.
Johnson says the audit is “more looking out for the traffic than the pedestrian and residents. Their burden is to get the traffic moving up through the state as fast as possible.”
Naparstek, who works in the realm of transportation policy, is mainly focused on big U.S. cities and how to make them less vehicle-dependent. He also has a podcast, “The War on Cars,” and founded and edited streetsblog.org, a publication that focuses on the issue.
He is based in Brooklyn, N.Y., but has had a home on Route 30 — where he and his family spent the pandemic year — for a decade.
He believes that the AOT’s perspective is at odds with the needs of people who live on and walk along the road and that the issue “requires political leadership” to force the state agency to change.
“I was a little bit shocked by how frankly regressive VTrans seemed to be regarding pedestrian safety through the village,” Naparstek says. “We got them to agree to the audit, and a lot of people showed up from different government agencies as well as stakeholders in the community and we went through this process and wrote a report.”
“Even the very first meeting, it was like VTrans was more interested in telling us what they wouldn’t and couldn’t do,” he continued. “They refuse to make any design changes to their highway as it runs through the center of the village — and that is the fundamental problem we have, I believe.”
Naparstek says Route 30 should be what it “once was, and wants to be: a nice, cozy, tree-lined main street,” and asserts that AOT “insists on maintaining Route 30 as a high-speed highway through the village.”
He cited dozens of potential traffic calming methods, many noted in a 20-year-old traffic calming plan the town has been sitting on. The ideas range from large welcome signs mid-street to the use of grass, narrowing the roadway, changing the texture of the roadway, and painting.
Those measures could be put into place while still making the road easily accessible for snowplows and emergency vehicles, he says.
“The only thing VTrans seemed to take note of is a stone memorial that they thought is in the way,” Naparstek says. “If they really wanted to slow things down, they would narrow the road.”
He says representatives also noted “the 85th percentile rule.”
“VTrans says, ‘We’re going to keep this road as is and look at the speeds at which cars travel, and we’ll take the 85th percentile to be the appropriate speed limit for the road,’” says Naparstek. “It’s all complete bureaucratic nonsense and all to ensure VTrans doesn’t have to change the design of their highway as it passes through the village.”
He believes the issue needs a nudge from a higher spot: the governor’s office.
Gov. Phil Scott “needs to be held to account for these dangerous roads throughout in these villages,” says Naparstek, noting anecdotal evidence of regularly occurring, serious accidents on the route.
“But even if you could get the funding for it, VTrans has made it clear they don’t want it,” he says. “You need an order from the governor that says we need to change.”
Asked to comment, the governor’s office referred The Commons to the AOT.
“It’s not rocket science,” Naparstek says. “Lots of places have solved this problem.”