SOUTH NEWFANE—The road to Dover was paved with good intentions, but just a little too late.
The Dover Road in South Newfane, heavily damaged in late August by the wildly flooded Rock River during Tropical Storm Irene, had been partially repaired and was due for guardrail installation.
Although one graphic designer circulated a petition urging guardrails not to be installed as part of the road reconstruction from Tropical Storm Irene, the funding for the project requires them to conform to federal road standards.
“I know money is tight. I know things had to be decided fast. I know there are bigger problems to be solved. But I wish town officials would care more about what Vermont roads look like as well as how they function,” said Carol Ross, who lives just west of the green iron Parish Hill Bridge, off the Dover Road.
Ross, a graphic designer, and her partner, Chris Triebert, a photographer, also found their studio and their property devastated by the flooding from the Rock River.
Ross, lamenting the loss of the natural barrier of trees and shrubs between the road and the river, petitioned the Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) to consider installing alternatives to the standard steel guardrails.
Ross was specifically talking about a small stretch of road, about two tenths of a mile, between the Parish Hill Bridge and the Williamsville Covered Bridge.
“There had been trees and big bushes all along that stretch, creating a very green and lovely river bank,” Ross’s petition read. “No guardrails were needed.”
“Now, all the trees are gone, the land was destroyed and the bank has been shored up with gravel and large rocks. The road was rebuilt with very little land along the river bank. It is naked and there is no greenery.”
Agreeing that safety was paramount, Ross’s petition said nevertheless that metal guardrails would “negatively impact our village.”
“Beyond the aesthetic, this is a residential area with many young children living along the road. Cars tend to go faster on roads lined by metal guardrails, as they imply a highway. Since this stretch is so narrow, this would create a dangerous situation.”
The petition asked the AOT to consider “to maintain our village feeling” by exploring safety options, such as “wooden guard rails and some kind of plantings to soften the rocks.”
“We have lost so much of the beauty that Vermont stands for and depends on for tourist dollars,” Ross wrote. “Metal guardrails would be one more setback for our rural village.”
Petitioners also requested that the chosen guardrail be set back from the road so people can walk and kids can bike on this stretch.
But Ross soon found out from AOT Traffic and Safety Engineer Bruce Nyquist that these requests would be impossible to fulfill.
Since the Federal Highway Administration was paying for the reconstruction of the road, Nysquist said, it had to be rebuilt to federal safety standards.
He suggested that Ross work with the Newfane Selectboard, which would determine what kind of guardrails to choose based on those safety standards and what work would be acceptable to receive reimbursement.
The Selectboard put Ross’s petition on the Dec. 1 agenda after she’d informed them of where she stood in the process.
However, neither Ross nor at least some of the Selectboard were aware that bids had already been submitted for the work, and the project already called for metal guardrails.
And that was about it, except for what appeared to be anger on the part of several Selectboard members who, to begin with, were unaware that there were several other types of metal guard rails that had passed safety standards in the past.
After some desultory conversation among board members, the board declined to take any action that might delay the guardrail installation work.
Asked specifically if the bidding had begun and contracts awarded, the board appeared to be unsure and agreed that the information might be available in a few days.
Last Monday morning, Town Clerk and Selectboard member Gloria Cristelli said indeed the guardrail process had begun and suggested a conversation with Dan Hull, an engineer and Agency of Transportation subcontractor who had been working in Newfane to repair the riverbanks.
Hull confirmed that the bidding process was done, a contractor had been hired, and work was due to begin the next day, Tuesday — with steel beam guardrails.
But Hull said he had requested that the guardrail be set as far back as possible without compromising safety.
He also said, given the right circumstances, it was possible that, if money was raised for the project, the steel guardrails might someday be replaced awith box beam steel rails that have a smaller profile.
Hull said that box beam guardrails have been crash-tested and have been used on scenic byways in the state.
Ross first found out on Monday by a phone call from Selectboard member Jonathan Mack that her petition was unsuccessful.
“I feel sad and resigned,” she wrote in an email.
“We were a scenic rural community that had a real charm along this section of Dover Road and the Rock River. Those days are gone.
“We will now be a fast road with generic highway guardrails along the barren river. In light of our two general stores being closed up, this is adding more salt to the South Newfane wound.”
After their installation, Ross was more disheartened.
“Looks awful, ruined our village feeling, and creates a highway atmosphere,” she wrote.
But then she cheered up after talking with Hull.
“He said don’t give up. You can plant trees and bushes. It’s not a big stretch,” she said.
“These guardrails can be removed for approximately $1,500,” Ross said. “Once there’s a berm of nature, you won’t need guardrails anymore. Just like before.”