A rural Vermont town’s transportation officials’ responsibilities used to be pretty straight forward – keep the roads clear of snow and passable during the winter, maintain bridges and culverts, and grade gravel roads. While those primary responsibilities remain, there’s now much more for towns to address.
Many Vermont towns have not significantly grown in population, but the distribution of residents across towns has become less dense. New homes are creeping up hillsides, and further into forest and farmland. This residential sprawl means additional road maintenance costs driven by an increased expectation that all roads be safe for daily commute and other travel.
Residential sprawl also brings more traffic. Most residents no longer work on the farm, they make repeated daily vehicle trips to work, school, shopping, recreation, etc, thus increasing traffic levels which threaten safety and rural peace and quiet.
Town officials are also grappling with new state requirements mandating that stormwater from their vast gravel road network be directed away from rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and wetlands. Road runoff has been shown to erode soils, some phosphorus laden, into waterbodies such as Lake Champlain. Road crews must now learn how to implement new stormwater practices, suchas stone-lined ditches on steep slopes, and residents must better understand why the practices are being put in place.
But back to increased traffic levels. The town of Craftsbury, VT first recognized that increased numbers of cars and trucks posed a safety threat to pedestrians and bicyclists in 2015. That year, the VT Council on Rural Development, undertook one of it’s “community visits” in Craftsbury.
Out of the well-attended deliberations, facilitated by the community visit process, came a vision for Craftsbury that included, “A future where Craftsbury is a walkable, bike-able community that is not too dominated by cars. Road travel is safe and slow through town and roads are safe for horseback riders and bikers.”
The community visit final report suggested that – “A Road Safety Task Force could come together to identify and implement strategies to control speed and improve road safety.” This became the catalyst for town officials to act.
A bit about Craftsbury – It’s 32 miles south of the US/Canadian border and has just over a thousand residents. The nearest traffic light, supermarket, movie theater, and hospital are 12 and 17 miles away in Hardwick and Morrisville, VT. Unlike many neighboring towns where residents must commute long distances to work, Craftsbury is home to growing enterprises. Pete’s Greens, Sterling College, the Craftsbury Outdoor Center and town’s K-12 school system, all provide local jobs and other opportunities.
In 2016 one member of the Craftsbury Select Board, Susie Houston, took on a leadership role and formed the recommended Road Safety Task Force. She was able to quickly identify a group of enthusiastic volunteer members.
The Task Force brought in regional planning experts, visited other towns, considered, but then rejected a state bicycle and pedestrian planning grant, and benefitted from Localmotion, a Vermont bike advocacy organization’s, technical assistance. Task Force members regularly met with the Select Board and prepared a concise and easy to understand summary for the town report presented at the 2017 Town Meeting.
The town’s three village areas, Craftsbury Common, Craftsbury Village and East Craftsbury, were the focus. The list of needs was long – better defined parking, intersection safety improvements, unearthing long neglected and buried sidewalks and building new ones, reducing speeds, painting fog lines, improving signage and putting new cross walks in place, to name a few.
The planning and investment necessary for implementation became a significant concern. The Task Force wanted to show on the ground results so decided in 2017 to focus on two things – signage and cross walks, items that would not significantly raise the town’s transportation budget.
This resulted in town officials enthusiastically agreeing to replace school zone signs, paint new cross walks, and place a new $5000 dollar solar-powered traffic speed monitor at one end of the Common. The monitor alerts drivers of their speed and issues a cheery thank you when speeds are less than the posted 30 mph. VTrans has leant a temporary speed monitor for the other villages locations. The reception has been very positive with permanent options planned for the future.
The Task Force leader, Jenny Stoner recently observed that having direct involvement of a select board member, and a diversity of representation on the Task Force, including some who held a less than enthusiastic opinion of the nature of the problem and how to address it, but were able to endorse the final recommendations, were critical in getting final community acceptance.
The Task Force’s efforts are a spark that will lead to more improvements in the future and Craftsbury’s transportation officials now find themselves in the traffic calming business, enthusiastically implementing changes to a rural transportation system in order to make the community a safer place for all.