This Ferry and Greenbush stop sign has also been referred to as the launch pad, where motorists take off down the hill and speed toward the ferry. Photo by Robert Coleburn
We feel the need for lower speeds.
How can the town get people to stop treating local roads like the Autobahn?
Chea Waters Evans
Speed bumps? How about humps? Or speed tables or narrower lanes or flexible speed delineators or soccer balls chucked into the road or signs reminding people that children live nearby? In what’s turning out to be an annual tradition that’s way less fun than the town-beach party and the library book sale, Charlotters are once again taking to Selectboard meetings and online forums to complain about lead-footed motorists speeding their way through town.
There are two parallel issues going on here: one is the fact that drivers seem to not care much about posted speed limits; the second is that without a police force of its own, the Town of Charlotte has limited options when it comes to catching violators. The challenge for town officials is to come up with cost-effective, reasonably executed solutions that can be implemented fairly across town, from the heavily-traveled villages to the lonelier dirt roads.
Selectboard Chair Matt Krasnow said he thinks part of the problem this year is covid-related. Charlotte contracts with the Vermont State Police for approximately 8 hours per week of policing. Troopers looking for overtime make up those extra 32 hours per month, but Krasnow said that VSP is currently “understaffed, overtaxed,” and has been following loosened guidelines for pulling over speeders since the pandemic began. Because they’re already so busy, the troopers who might usually pick up some extra work in Charlotte are scarce right now.
Krasnow said he thinks increased law enforcement is the way to manage the speeding issue most efficiently. He estimates that the state police are only fulfilling about ¼ to ⅓ of the hours the town budgeted for this fiscal year and that these unused police funds could be put to use.
“We have a lot of latitude to manage [speed enforcement ],” Krasnow said. “We have mitigated ability to alter the speed limits. It takes time to do it the right way, and it still requires enforcement or the honor system working.” He said adding police patrols is on the agenda for the August 23 Selectboard meeting, and he’s proposing that the town allocate some of the unused VSP funds to finance law enforcement from nearby police departments like Vergennes, Shelburne, or Hinesburg. The town currently pays about $70 per hour to the state police for their coverage, and Krasnow said that the last time they bid on patrolling Charlotte, the Shelburne Police Department came in around $185 per hour. He said that increased cost might be worth it if it helps calm the situation.
There’s a stretch of Greenbush Road in West Charlotte that runs from the intersection with Ferry Road north about half a mile. The speed limit there is 25 mph; frequent complaints come up about motorists flagrantly ignoring that limit and driving much faster, even though there are a lot of pedestrians with baby strollers and biking children in the area. It’s the lowest speed limit in town, even lower than in front of the school on Hinesburg Road.
The State of Vermont offers municipalities specific guidance for setting speed limits through the Vermont Local Roads Program. This document lays out two main principles to follow when setting a speed limit. It reads, “The first is to protect the public and curb unreasonable behavior. … Second, to effectively enforce a law, the public must believe that the law is reasonable. Local officials should not set a uniform speed limit for all roads and streets, nor should they succumb to pressure by residents to lower speed limits.”
According to a speed study document created by the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, “A widely used metric in setting speed limits is the 85th percentile speed. This is defined as the speed in which 85% of motorists are traveling at or below. Based on the best available evidence and previous research, speed limits set using the 85th percentile speed data are not only acceptable by the majority of motorists, but also fall within the speed range where crash risk is lowest. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which is adopted as the standard for all traffic control devices in Vermont, recommends setting speed limits within 5 mph of the 85th percentile speed while taking into consideration other factors such as roadway characteristics, shoulder condition, grade, the speed pace, land uses, development setbacks, parking, crash history, and bicycle/pedestrian activity.”
The town of Charlotte has performed several speed studies in recent years; these are usually done by the CCRPC and included in the town’s membership cost. At the town’s request, the Vermont Agency of Transportation Operations & Safety Bureau conducted a Road Safety Audit Review of Ferry Road and published its results in July 2020. An RSAR studies potential safety issues on a certain roadway—in this case, from the railroad tracks on Ferry Road heading west to the ferry landing—and suggests solutions to whatever problems are identified. The speed limit in this one study’s area is 50 mph.
Though speeding to catch the ferry is generally thought to be a common activity, the report found that, “The recent speed data collected by CCRPC indicates that the 85th percentile speed on some parts of Ferry Rd. where the roadway is more open and where it traverses some fields is between 52 and 54 mph and that it is around 38 and 39 mph where the roadway characteristics are more compact with trees, narrow clear zones and more closely spaced driveways (from Converse Bay Rd to about 2087 Ferry Rd).”
A 2019 CCRPC study on the stretch of Church Hill Road from Route 7 to Hinesburg Road indicated that following standard metrics, the speed limit there should be 45 mph, but “other factors such as lack of proper shoulder widths, road side development and land use characteristics, and occasional presence of pedestrians and bikers along the road should be considered in setting a reasonable speed limit. Based on the above stated observations, it is recommended to set a speed limit of 40 mph for the study area.”
According to emails exchanged this July between Town Administrator Dean Bloch and Sai Kumar Sarepalli, a senior transportation planning engineer with the CCRPC, the town is working on plans for future traffic studies focusing on the East Charlotte Village. In the fall, they will “update [the] speed study for four approaches at various distances from the Spear Street & Hinesburg Road intersection.” Within the year, they will hire a consultant “to develop site specific recommendations for low-cost traffic calming measures for the four road-sections leading into and out of the intersection of Spear Street and Hinesburg Road, and for Greenbush Road north and south of the intersection with Ferry Road (i.e. West Charlotte village).” Bloch also noted that possibly within the year, they will hire a consultant “to develop site-specific recommendations for longer-term strategies for making the East Charlotte village more pedestrian-friendly.”
In the meantime, creative solutions like the Shelburne village scarecrows that inadvertently terrify motorists into thinking they’re about to hit a child whilst simultaneously festively decorating in honor of autumn, or a trompe l’oeil speed bump painted by Planning Commission Chair Peter Joslin that was recently suggested on Front Porch Forum, could be on the docket. Krasnow said, however, he’d have to check on the legality and liability issues associated with such unconventional speed-control tactics. Until that’s cleared up, he said he will pursue more tried-and-true methods like good old-fashioned speeding tickets.
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