Downtown “Circulator” rotary is #1 crash site in Vermont;

The pros and cons of a plan to improve pedestrian safety at the Circulator Project – the eight-year-old downtown traffic rotary – were discussed at length by city residents and officials at the Oct. 15 City Council meeting. The Council postponed its decision until a future meeting.

The six recommendations to change signage, add crosswalks, and create a bike lane were prepared and presented by the city Traffic Advisory Board (TAB). Click here to see the entire plan.

As a way to keep traffic moving, “I think the traffic circle works great,” Mayor Michael O’Brien said. Between 30,000 and 40,000 cars travel the Circulator daily, he said. The Council is worried about vehicular safety, it noted in a memo to the TAB: “Since having the #1 crash location in the state is not good for any aspect of our community, we must understand the flow of traffic at the high crash locations and minimize the need to merge and the number of elements that distract drivers. We must understand what is causing the crashes as best we can, and work to resolve as many of those issues as possible.” The TAB responded that its goals is “solving as many safety issues as possible without creating new ones…..a single approach to address vehicular, pedestrian and bike safety issues is not going to be effective.”

Several residents, including one city councilor, expressed concern that the mere act of change will confuse pedestrians and drivers who, despite the Circulator’s challenges, have grown accustomed to it. “I have concern that changing things around will cause more problems. It’s almost like a gut thing,” Councilor Megan Moir said. A TAB spokesperson acknowledged her concerns but said, “We feel this is a good solution. When people build a circulator, it is generally to move traffic,” not to accommodate pedestrians. The TAB recommendations are meant to fix that oversight, he said.

The 1980’s proposal to build a pedestrian bridge over Main Street was revisited and rejected. Among other concerns, construction would cost millions of dollars. “Other much less expensive alternatives exist for providing safe pedestrian crossing facilities within the circulator,” the TAB said.

 “The location of the present crosswalk make the drivers take into consideration an awful lot of things,” Richard Smithers noted. He said he understands how accidents occur. “I think the recommendation is very good, and the board should look on it favorably.” The bypass under the Winooski - Burlington bridge, at the southern end of the Circulator, is useful for pedestrians, but should be better maintained during the winter, he said.

Eileen Andreoli said critical signage has been lacking since the Circulator opened. “It seems to have been set up for failure,” she said. At a meeting last year, people sought better traffic enforcement and lower speed limits. Had these suggestions been embraced, the Circulator might have lost the dubious distinction of being the number one scene of accidents, she said. Furthermore, the City’s downtown businesses are just now recovering from a period of slow economic activity, and any changes made should be made with them in mind.

 Removing the stoplights near McKee’s Pub will make the crossing more dangerous, Jodi Harrington said. “Every day people are pushing those strollers across the crosswalks,” she said. Ms. Harrington works at the nearby Winooski Welcome Center and art gallery.

“I applaud the 80-90 percent of [drivers] who stay within the speed limit,” but if there are 30,000 drivers per day, that still means that 3,000 drivers speed, Michael Mahoney said. “That’s the issue we have to deal with.”

“I want to start small,” said one resident. Since the Circulator was opened there have been less than 10 pedestrian accidents, she claimed. “I am really hesitant to say that just because [an accident] happened there, it is about the pedestrian crosswalk.” A police officer noted that some car-only accidents have happened because of the lack of pedestrian crossing lights; cars stop to allow pedestrians to cross, and are rear-ended, he said.

A TAB spokesperson said the board discussed “starting small,” but that it makes more fiscal sense to address the major problems together, rather than piecemeal.

After the discussion ended, the board deliberated before making its decision. “It seems we still have a lot of questions that I’m not comfortable with,” Sally Tipson said. “At this point it needs a little more time to chew on it, maybe to take a field trip and sit in the park.”