VTrans hears solid support for Bennington roundabout
BENNINGTON — A roundabout to replace the complex intersection of Route 67A, Silk Road, Rice Lane and the Bennington College entrance drive remains the overwhelming choice of local officials and residents, Vermont Agency of Transportation officials learned Thursday.
However, Michael LaCroix, a project planner with VTrans, and Jennifer Conley, of WSP, a consulting firm studying options for improving the crash-prone stretch, said no decisions have yet been made on which improvement plan will be approved and whether funding is available.
They said an ongoing study by the consulting firm is exploring the roundabout option along with others. After a report is issued, "we will have to present that to [VTrans] management," LaCroix told residents and local officials who attended the public input session at the college.
He estimated that, should the state commit to a roundabout to address long-standing traffic flow and safety concerns, it still would be another three to five years before the project could reach the construction stage.
Since right-of-way issues seem mostly resolved, that could speed the process, LaCroix said, but "it would be a minimum of three years" before a project could be approved, funded and construction underway.
That timeline information did not go over well with those present, who recalled that a study of the intersection in 1996 found a roundabout to be the preferred option for improving the site, but the state ultimately rejected that idea.
Lesser efforts to make intersection safer have failed to reduce the accident rate, those who commented said, and a small pedestrian traffic island installed in Route 67A in front of the college entrance has led to greater confusion for drivers.
"We keep mitigating here, but I think we have got to solve this," said David Rees, senior vice president for Institutional Initiatives at the college.
Others stressed that most if not all local stakeholders are in favor of a roundabout as "practically a no-brainer," especially in light of the success of a roundabout at the nearby entrance to the Wal-Mart/Price Chopper plaza. That project has dramatically smoothed traffic through a previously snarled section of Route 67A (Northside Drive), they said.
James Sullivan, executive director of the Bennington County Regional Commission, said a similar study in 1996 determined a roundabout to be the preferred option, but that was rejected in part because of objections from regional state highway officials who thought the area would be difficult to plow during winter. Political support for the option also was not as strong as it seems today, he said.
At that time consideration of a roundabout "just stopped," he said, despite significant support locally.
"BCRC always thought it was the preferred alternative," he said.
Sullivan added that roundabouts in Bennington and Manchester have since proven successful and may have convinced doubters of their worth in both reducing accidents and moving traffic more efficiently.
The current configuration, with a small pedestrian island in Route 67A, installed in 2017 as part of an improvement project, has not resulted in fewer accidents, officials said.
Conley said her firm's early research confirmed that the number of accidents has actually increased since prior improvement work that included the island.
The site "has a crash history," she said, and the frequency "hasn't gone down with the new configuration."
Safety concerns there "has certainly caught the attention of the agency [VTrans]," Conley said.
One resident noted the frequency of large trucks or other vehicles striking the island curbing, saying that it has to be repainted often because of tire marks.
There also was a consensus at the meeting that the island has made the highway, which curves to the left in front of the college entrance, too narrow. They said that makes the site dangerous to vehicles coming into it, especially for drivers unfamiliar with the area.
Turning onto the highway from Rice Lane/Matteson Road, Silk Road or the college drive also can be dangerous, residents said, particularly for larger vehicles. And they said turning into the college entrance, which is close to the Rice Lane/Matteson Road entrance, can be difficult, confusing and/or dangerous, especially at night.
Bennington officials expressed strong support for a roundabout.
In a letter written previously to Conley, Select Board Chairman Thomas Jacobs said, "Please accept this message as a statement of support from the town of Bennington and its Select Board to bring some finality to the long discussed but as yet not constructed roundabout at the Bennington College entrance off of Route 67A. I make this as plea for action on this critically needed intersection improvement."
He added, "In the final analysis it's time for this project to be commenced without further delay as I remain fearful with each passing day of learning a life has been lost or a serious injury received because the dangerous condition has not received the priority attention required."
Both Town Manager Stuart Hurd and Assistant Town Manager and Planning Director Dan Monks said the town staff "has consistently supported the construction of a roundabout in that location."
Rees told LaCroix that Bennington College is "fully in support" of a roundabout solution, and that he hopes one can be installed before a student or other person on campus is involved in a fatal crash.
LaCroix said that, if the consultant's report supports the belief that the intersection represents a significant safety concern, that would bolster his subsequent report to VTrans management on project options, and that could make the roundabout option more of "a slam dunk."
But Conley said her firm is tasked to look at all available improvement options and will consider other factors as well, such as any wetlands or similar issues that arise. The study is in the early stages, she said.
Cost also will be a factor in the state's decision, Conley said, adding, "A roundabout is a costly alternative."
For residents wishing to offer comments about the intersection during the study, Conley can be reached at Jennifer.Conley@wsp.com
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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