Conversation continues on Route 30 gateway improvements

State AOT explores options for heavily traveled 1.5-mile stretch

BRATTLEBORO — A mile and a half of Route 30 between Cedar Street north and the Saxtons River Distillery/Fulcrum Arts complex might soon get a facelift - or at least a makeover.

The Agency of Transportation (AOT), Windham Regional Commission (WRC), and town of Brattleboro launched the Route 30 Multi-Modal Gateway study earlier this year to investigate improving the short, but heavily traveled, section of roadway.

According to WRC Senior Transportation Planner Matt Mann, the conversation started with then-Secretary of Transportation Sue Minter around constructing a bike bridge to connect Route 30 and the West River Trail.

The conversation expanded into a collaboration between the AOT, the West River Trail Committee, the town of Brattleboro, and the WRC.

A technical advisory committee - consisting of representatives from state agencies, such as the AOT - and a community advisory committee that included residents, business owners, and community organizations, started reviewing the project in March and April.

At a May 24 informational meeting, consultants contracted to conduct the study released a draft existing-conditions report and sought feedback from an audience of approximately 20 people.

Potential design alternatives for the roadway are expected in the late summer.

The whole study project will cost $40,000. The AOT has provided funds through the state transportation planning initiative (TPI). The WRC provided $5,000 of the total amount in matching funds, explained Jackie Cassino, AOT planning coordinator.

Regional commissions receive TPI funds from the state annually. This study links transportation with land use under the bigger umbrella of place-making, Cassino said.

Route 30 is a gateway to Brattleboro but you wouldn't know it, Cassino said. Brattleboro isn't alone. Across Vermont, the state and towns haven't planned their gateways well, according to Cassino.

Cassino said as the state, or towns, update roadways, the goal is to bring them up to new design standards.

Recreational, traffic, and commercial use of the section of Route 30 has evolved informally over the years. This led to a patchwork of roadside parking areas, a dirt “boat landing,” and multiple road uses. Drivers and cyclists maneuver around people accessing the Retreat Meadows for fishing or kayaking in the summer, or ice skating and ice fishing in the winter.

On the other side of Route 30, drivers and pedestrians turn into and out of the Retreat Farm driveway, Upper Dummerston Road, and private driveways. Others travel Route 30 as a through road.

Farther north, construction continues on the Interstate 91 bridge, the West River Park holds sporting events, and commercial properties attract visitors.

Project consultants Brandy Saxton, AICP, owner of Place Sense, and David Saladino, PE, Director of Transportation Engineering for the planning and engineering firm VHB in Vermont, presented the findings.

The state owns this portion of Route 30, they said. The road is designed as a 50 mph through-road. This area of road, however, has evolved as a gateway to downtown Brattleboro.

On average, 6,000 cars travel the section of road a day. Traffic increases on the weekend during ski season. Overall, however, travel has decreased from an average of 8,000 cars a day in the early 2000s.

In comparison, Saladino noted that an average of 15,000 cars a day travel Western Avenue and Putney Road.

According to Saxton and Saladino, an average of five vehicle accidents happened each year between 2011 and 2015, with approximately 30 percent of the accidents resulting in injuries and more than 25 percent occurring at intersections.

Speed limits start at 25 mph near the Retreat, transition to 40 mph between the Retreat Farm to the Interstate 91 bridge, and then rise to 50 mph. Saladino said approximately 85 percent of drivers between the Retreat to the bridge drove at 48 mph.

Total paved roadway width ranges from 24 feet near the Retreat to 34 feet past the Interstate 91 bridge. One unusual feature is the large public right-of-way which varies from 107 to 200 feet.

The study area remains popular because it contains recreational, historic, scenic, and cultural opportunities the consultants said. They expect recreational use will increase once the Interstate 91 bridge work is completed.

While the new bridge will have a public viewing platform overlooking the West River, the immediate area won't have parking.

Saxton said design alternatives could include new line striping, reduced speed limits, bike lanes, boat access, parking, and a foot bridge across the West River.

The final design will depend on two issues: Who owns the road, and what design features can go in an area that sits mostly in a flood plain?

Right now, the road belongs to AOT. The agency prohibits features - like bump outs (pedestrian crossing extensions of sidewalks) or parking areas - that impede maintenance such as snowplowing. The state, however, allows towns to take over state roads.

The state would provide some annual funding for Class 1 roads such as Route 30 after the town takes a section over, Mann said. Depending on the infrastructure a town adds, such as street lights, maintenance costs might exceed state aid. (Class 1 town highways are roads that serve as both town and state highways.)

Brattleboro Planning Director Rod Francis said that taking over the road is easy, but suggested that whether the town wants the costs or not is is a different question.

According to meeting minutes from an April community advisory meeting, Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein expressed reservations about the town taking on the cost of maintaining additional infrastructure.

Residents from some of the 15 private homes along the road expressed safety concerns at the March 24 meeting. They cited close calls turning left into their driveways and excessive speeding.

Alex Wilson of the Friends of West River Trail discussed plans for a pedestrian bridge across the West River to connect Route 30 to the trail.

Plans for a cable pedestrian bridge slung under the new Interstate-91 bridge were abandoned, Wilson said. Costs for cabling were higher than expected and the bridge would sway too much, he said.

Wilson, who also serves on the community advisory committee, said the Friends are instead investigating constructing a bridge at a narrower part of the river near the West River Park.

Arthur “Buzz” Schmidt represented the Retreat Farm and serves on the community advisory committee. Schmidt suggested moving parking and the boat launch for the Retreat Meadows to land near the town's pump station located between the bridge and The Retreat.

He also suggested building a pedestrian bridge across the wetlands and islands of the Meadows. The walkway would connect to the Putney Road side of the waterway creating a loop trail from Putney Road area to the Retreat and back to the Meadows.

Francis, Saxton, and Schmidt all noted environmental concerns that might govern changes.

“There's significant communities of rare plant and animal species” along Route 30 and in the Meadows, Francis said.

Schmidt said road runoff into the Meadows was a concern.

Saxton pointed to a map showing that almost all of the study area sat in the 100-year floodplain. Most of the islands in the Meadows are wetlands, she added.

Other concerns and ideas from audience members included sediment build-up in the Meadows, creating a bike path with a guardrail between drivers and cyclists, and using the parking at West River Park.

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