Burlington’s City Council will decide Monday night whether or not to keep a controversial street design pilot through the winter.
The North Avenue pilot project was implemented this summer to test out new road features, the most prominent being a reduction of the number of lanes from four to three.
Critics have said that the new design will increase travel time, and that the city hasn’t listened to concerns about the project.
“[The] overarching theme is ... yes, we've seen the travel times increase and the side street wait times, but we think they're within reason,” said Jason Charest, a senior transportation planning engineer with the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission.
The planning commission is in charge of the bulk of the data collection efforts to measure, monitor and evaluate the North Avenue pilot project.
Charest said even though there’s been an increase in travel times since the pilot started, so far the data shows there have been fewer crashes.
“[In] 2014 [it] was 23 total, 2015 was 12 total and 2016 was nine,” Charest said. “And those are all for the months of July and August. I'm hesitant to say that this is a pattern, because it's only been two months.”
“That's one of the reasons that we have always considered running the pilot for up to a year, so that we can really look at the full year's worth of crash data for travel times and some of the other impacts,” said Nicole Losch, a senior transportation planner at the Department of Public Works in Burlington and project manager for the North Avenue pilot project.
Losch said the whole point of the pilot project is to make the area safer, and going from four to three lanes achieves that goal.
“What we often see is a lot of swerving behaviors from motorists trying to get around cars and maybe turning left, and a lot of times the left lane can kind of be a de facto turn lane,” she said. “And so in this conversion into the three-lane scenario, we just create a center turn lane that can be shared by both directions at the intersections and then with the extra space on the roadway we're able to install bike lanes in each direction."
The Department of Public Works is collecting three types of data: safety data, traffic data and public opinion. It’s the final set of information — public opinion — that’s generated controversy.
Some residents feel that their objections to the project haven’t been taken into account.
“It was pre-determined outcome that they were going for and they’re just basically tricking us into thinking that we’ve had a public input process that was honest,” said Karen Rowell, a resident of Burlington’s New North End.
Rowell doesn’t think North Avenue was unsafe before, and she doesn’t trust the data that DPW is collecting. She also thinks that the public opinion survey that DPW put out should have asked included a simple question: Do residents like the change in North Ave?
“Did that question get on the survey?” she said. “No, it's, 'Oh, what do think about this?’ It’s a whole bunch of questions that can be analyzed multiple ways and they’re the ones analyzing it.”
The most recent public opinion survey was only available online.
“One of the concerns of some neighbors is the accessibility of the survey and wanting a paper format,” said Chapin Spence, the head of Burlington’s Department of Public Works. “While we were squeezed due to a number of time factors here in the fall, we're fully committed to doing a paper survey along with an online component for the spring.”
Spencer said they didn’t ask a simple yes or no question on the survey because they wanted to understand how the public felt about the various parts of the project.
“The struggle with that from a policy perspective is it's very hard to understand the will of the voter if it's strictly an up or down, if there are many components of a pilot that need to be evaluated,” he said.
Burlington City Council will decide Monday night if the project continues through the winter. If the pilot stays, the Department of Public Works will keep collecting data and conduct another public survey in the spring.