Most every town has its “malfunction junction,” or assorted traffic headaches that drive people crazy. But as officials in Rutland recently found out, trying to fix those trouble spots can be an even bigger headache.
Woodstock Avenue is what you’ll take if you’re driving between Rutland and Killington. It’s part of U.S. Route 4, with four lanes, big trucks, a local high school and lots of densely packed businesses.
“This particular stretch of road is in the top 25 percent of crash locations in the state of Vermont,” explained Ted Shattuck, a retired physician. He’s also an avid bicyclist who’s on the steering committee of the Rutland Area Physical Activity Coalition.
Standing on the sidewalk, Shattuck said there are about 50 accidents a year on this stretch of road.
“Unfortunately there hasn’t been much emphasis on safety along this road or safety in our calculations ," he said. "So I think people who walk, bike, who drive this road, their safety needs to be considered, and the recent trial that we had demonstrated a dramatic drop in accidents.”
For the past month, Rutland experimented with a new traffic pattern designed to calm the flow of cars and reduce accidents. Instead of four lanes, traffic was reduced to three with a shared left turn lane in the middle and bike lanes on either side.
Proponents happily point out that accidents on the road have dropped 66 percent with the new design.
But many local businesses complain that their revenues and accessibility have also plummeted.
Nancy Greenwood, a realtor who works on Woodstock Avenue, said the new design has made it very difficult to get in and out of businesses.
“It took six minutes to get out of Pizza Hut the other day just to come back to my office just up the street.”
And considering all the truck traffic on Route 4, a major east-west highway, she worries about the safety of those in the bike lanes.
Jeff Wennberg, Rutland City’s commissioner of public works, is a member of the city’s board of highway commissioners. The three-member board voted two to one last week to return the traffic pattern to the original four-lane configuration. Wennberg said he actually liked the new design, but said he couldn’t vote to keep it because there hadn’t been adequate public education.
“The majority of bicyclists were going the wrong way on the road and then we had people using the bike lanes for pushing baby carriages and skateboarders,” Wennberg said. “It was absolutely horrifying to see the misuse of what became an attractive nuisance with these bike lanes. And it was a situation where in my mind that I couldn’t justify a reduction in fender benders for an increase in fatalities and that’s clearly what we would have had had we continued on the existing course.”
Ted Shattuck and other proponents of the new traffic pattern have been trying to get city officials to change their minds, going so far as to stage a protest Friday outside city hall. But Wennberg and fellow highway commissioner David Allaire, who voted against the new design stand behind their decision.
Wennberg said repaving the road will start Sunday, part of a $9 million series of road upgrades through the city, and delaying the start of the project or changing it at this point would simply be too costly.