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Public weighs in on preliminary designs for tricky intersection

Public Works Department presents alternatives for Western Avenue-Union Hill-Cedar Street

BRATTLEBORO—It’s hard to improve a difficult road configuration but the town’s Department of Public Works and its engineering and surveying contractor have taken the challenge.

The DPW and Holden Engineering & Surveying, Inc., from Bedford, N.H., held a public meeting April 9 to gather feedback on preliminary designs to improve safety and flow for pedestrians and motorists at the intersection of Western Avenue, Union Hill, and Cedar Street.

Approximately 20 people attended the meeting, held in the Selectboard Meeting Room of the Municipal Center. Their reactions were mixed, but in the end participants said they were encouraged.

The hearing was possible in part because the Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) has granted the town $70,000 in engineering and construction funds to improve the intersection.

According to DPW Highway and Utilities Superintendent Hannah O’Connell, engineering has eaten up more than half of the grant. Of the remainder, she said, “$35,000 doesn’t buy you a lot of construction.”

Holden’s designs focused improvements at Union Hill and Western Avenue.

Union Hill cuts a steep curve from Western Avenue to a five-way intersection. The mouth of the steep road joins a primary vehicle-and-pedestrian, west-to-east road into downtown Western Avenue near the popular Crowell Lot (and Green Street School).

The Western Avenue and Union Hill intersection brings its share of hazards. Two people in the audience said they’d been struck by cars while crossing the road. In December, a hit-and-run driver struck and killed a pedestrian.

According to traffic data from Steve Barrett, the director of the Department of Public Works, 800 vehicles flow through the intersection during a peak drive time of 4:15 p.m.

He said data showed that half those cars were traveling from downtown; drivers heading downtown accounted for about 35 percent of the traffic; drivers coming from Cedar Street account for 8 percent of the traffic; and traffic from Union Hill totaled 7 percent.

Pedestrians must cross a span of 80 feet atop Union Hill — a challenge, as visibility for cars turning onto Western Avenue sometimes is limited, and drivers heading up the hill often pull into the crosswalk to steal a better view of oncoming traffic before making their move.

Visibility also proves limited for drivers turning from Western Avenue to Union Hill, where the road slopes down and curves.

Audience members said that drivers often are distracted by all the activity at the intersection. They also said drivers take the turn to Union Hill too quickly.

Peter Holden, vice president of Holden, Inc. walked the audience through alternative designs the company developed for the project.

One design divides the mouth of Union Hill where it meets Western Avenue into a fork, with a pedestrian island in the middle.

Holden said the firm favors a second design that adds green space on either side of the upper part of the road to narrow its mouth to 35 feet. That design also slows traffic by bumping out the sidewalk on Western Avenue near the intersection.

His engineers shifted eastward a second pedestrian crossing on Western Avenue to afford safer and more convenient access to the Crowell Lot bus shelter. That crossing today is at the edge of Union Hill.

The town has intended to improve the Union Hill and Western Avenue intersection for about 10 years, and in 2004 hired SVE Associates to investigate solutions, said Barrett. Designs were tweaked over multiple public meetings, and the Selectboard in 2005 approved plans. Funding evaporated, however, and the project never made it to construction.

With this recent AOT grant, the town reopened the project’s bid process, Holden’s firm got the gig, and the public are once again weighing in.

“In a way, it gives us a fresh pair of eyes,” said Barrett.

April 9 audience members suggested adding a second crosswalk across Western Avenue near Avenue Grocery. People cross the road to get to the store but also will avoid crossing at the busier Union Hill.

Several audience members argued for making the entire intersection a four-way stop, with stop signs, but Barrett said he doubted that AOT would approve funding for that.

William Rossignol, Holden’s director of transportation, pointed out that the Cedar Street-Western Avenue-Union Hill intersection does not line up well, which makes it difficult for drivers to make eye contact and navigate turns.

Another concern of attendees: lengthy traffic backups on Western Avenue.

O’Connell, superintendent of highway and utilities for the DPW, noted that that AOT, as grantee, has the final say on what construction to fund.

Barrett said that the town had considered making Union Hill a one-way street. That idea foundered on issues to do with winter road maintenance.

At that, some audience members shook their heads, and said they wanted the town to make Union Hill one-way from Western Avenue down toward Elliot Street.

Selectboard Chair and town Traffic Safety and Control Committee member David Gartenstein said Union Hill as a one-way road was unrealistic: The steep road is one a few routes crossing the Whetstone Brook. Restricting traffic flow on Union Hill could force congestion onto other streets.

Audience members also suggested restricting Union Hill and Cedar Street to right-turn-only. This would reduce the amount of cars crossing traffic.

Alice Charkes, who has been involved in the Union Hill project and also improvements on Green Street, stressed the need to ensure pedestrian safety through lowering the speed of traffic. She said she wanted the top of Union Hill narrowed even more.

Charkes noted that much of Western Avenue is posted at 25 miles per hour — and is poorly enough marked that “most people” there actually drive 35 mph.

“Pedestrians really need to cross safely,” she said. “No one cares except about themselves and their car.”

Matt Mann, senior planner with the Windham Regional Commission, said that the design presented by Holden was probably one of the better solutions. He added that the suggestion to change the street to a one-way had validity.

In the end, audience members thanked the DPW and Holden for their work. In next steps, both will compile the evening’s comments and see which ones they can work into a winning design, said O’Connell.

Barrett added that when the designs do wind up before the Selectboard, the public will have a new opportunity to weigh in.

“We’re hearing a lot of great things here,” said Barrett, who added he was pleased with the night’s attendance and conversation: “This is the type of feedback we’re looking for.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #250 (Wednesday, April 16, 2014). This story appeared on page A3.

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