NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- Local officials are beginning the process of improving pedestrian access to the busiest intersection in Bennington County, while eyeing a possible source of federal funding.
Mark Anders, a transportation planner with the Bennington County Regional Commission, hosted a public meeting Tuesday to discuss how a $500,000 federal earmark could be used to help pedestrians safely navigate a busy stretch of road along Kocher and Northside drives. The site currently has no pedestrian areas and is used by many middle school students to walk to and from school.
Pedestrian underpass too costly
Officials have been eyeing the corridor for about a decade, and Vermont Rep. Peter Welch announced the earmark in 2008. But the original plan, to install a pedestrian underpass recommended by engineers, proved to be far more costly than the earmark would allow.
"It was never rebuilt because there wasn't enough money to build it. It would have been too expensive to build it and it's also not an appropriate place for a pedestrian tunnel," Anders told a small crowd that included two Select Board members and a state transportation official.
Anders said the underpass would have been located a significant distance from the intersection of the streets with Route 7, and many students, who Anders said are "not as risk averse" as adults, would have attempted cross the busy intersection anyway.
"Unless you put razor wire up, people are still going to cross there," he said. Now, officials have hired new consultants to complete a new "scoping study" to see what can be done with the remaining $490,000. Providing safe passage for pedestrians is important because highways and rail lines have made it "almost like there's this Berlin Wall from North Bennington," Anders said.
Among the possibilities that the consultants will consider are sidewalks, a multi-use path, crosswalks, pedestrian refuge islands across the wide intersection and bike lanes. However, Anders cautioned that the relatively small earmark will severely limit the amount of work that can be completed.
Providing safe passage for pedestrians is now required under a new Vermont law passed earlier this year. Anders said the Complete Streets law requires that all roadway projects that are completed by the state or municipalities must take pedestrian safety into account. Making the streets safer for pedestrians will have the added benefit of encouraging kids to walk or bike to school, Anders said.
The consultants have a difficult task to design something safe with the available money. The focus will likely be on the Route 7 intersection, and "pinch points," where guardrails and other impediments force pedestrians into the roadway.
Anders said a best-case scenario would see work completed in about two years.