Elodie Reed, St. Albans Messenger
I knew … this would not be an easy meeting necessarily.
ST. ALBANS — About 50 people were in attendance Thursday night to discuss potential ideas for a bike and pedestrian path between area schools and the Collins Perley Sports & Fitness Center. The upshot was the possible abandonment of two proposed street extensions to accommodate the path.
The meeting, held in the St. Albans Town Educational Center cafeteria, was full of ideas, opinions, and spirited discussion.
Jim Donovan, a landscape architect from Broadreach Planning and Design of Charlotte, presented the latest idea to the audience: a signaled four-way intersection and crosswalk at a proposed meeting of Grice Brook and Thorpe Avenue Extension on the St. Albans Highway, which is the access road to Interstate 89 Exit 19 from South Main Street.
The signaled intersection would require the extension of Grice Brook Road and Thorpe Avenue Extension across the highway.
The two roads currently are dead-ended.
The intersection concept came out of the $55,000 conceptual planning and feasibility study paid for in large part by the Federal Highway Administration and administered through the Vermont Agency of Transportation. The grant supported study, for which the town received money in February 2013 and awarded to Broadreach in August 2013, is being worked on by several different groups: Broadreach and the South Burlington-based project consultant Stantec, the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), and a nine-member steering committee formed by the town.
The study also has involved three public work sessions. Last night’s meeting was termed as the third of those, and was supposed to be the last.
According to Donovan, the intersection was the best way VTrans thought the town could save expense and create a safer crossing across the busy St. Albans Highway.
The signaled intersection piece of the path would cost about $300,000. A bridge across the road would cost close to $800,000, while a tunnel would cost about $1 million.
Donovan said it was unclear exactly how the path would be paid for, whether it would come from town funds or federal and private grants.
Despite the lower projected cost for the intersection, residents expressed many concerns last night about the new concept, stormwater drainage, changes in traffic flow through the two neighborhoods, and property crossings without permission among them.
“If you put a light there, you’re going to open up a free-for-all,” said Donna Hazard, a Tanglewood Drive resident.
Some expressed their opinions quite forcefully, requiring Town Manager Carrie Johnson to step to the front of the meeting to remind residents that no individual debates should take place during such meetings and all comments needed to be respectful.
Donovan did present a letter of support for the intersection signed by 40 to 45 Grice Brook residents.
Due to a mostly negative reaction from residents to the intersection idea, however, Donovan said there will most likely be a fourth public work session soon to look at other concepts. “My observation [is], it’s best to put that one on the shelf,” he said.
About halfway through the meeting, the tone shifted from debate and dissension to finding new solutions for installing a mixed-use path. Some suggested putting up an overpass bridge over St. Albans Highway, and others talked about creating footpaths in local neighborhoods to link a bike and pedestrian path to safe neighborhood sidewalks.
St. Albans Selectboard member Bruce Cheeseman asked whether there were ways to introduce the concept of safe walking and biking paths from schools to Collins Perley slowly, allowing the project to grow as more people use those paths. “Kind of like supply and demand,” he said.
Many suggested that, as a start, the town could improve crosswalks at the beginning and end of the St. Albans highway.
“You’ve already got an intersection at (Route) 104,” said resident and developer Sam Smith. “All you need is a pedestrian light. It would be the cheapest way to initially do something.”
In the end, residents, selectboard members, and Donovan acknowledged that the project comes down to keeping children safe. Donovan thanked the audience for its shift in focus.
“I knew coming into this, that this would not be an easy meeting necessarily,” he said. “We want to find out what might work.”
Cheeseman added, “I think this is ultimately a good project. It’s all about the kids,” he said. “It’s meetings like these that make good things happen.”