GEORGIA – In a room filled to capacity, the town of Georgia, the Northwest Regional Planning Commission (NRPC), the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) and contractors with VHB, an engineering firm, conducted the first public meeting Monday night for a study that could shape the Georgia South Village District for years to come.
Residents and business owners from the town, most coming from the South Village District, filled the Georgia Public Library’s meeting room to voice their concerns to the VHB contractors conducting the study and town and NRPC officials that promoted it, raising their concerns about what the study could recommend in the stretch of highway spanning from Route 7’s intersection with Interstate-89 in the north to its intersection with Ballard Road in the south.
“Coming out of tonight, what we’re hoping to do is start developing some concept plans [for infrastructure],” VHB Managing Director David Saladino said, introducing the study to the room. “How do those start to look and how do they lay on the land?”
The area has been of particular interest to the town of Georgia, who consider the South Village as an important development area for the town. VTrans also cites that stretch of road as an area of concern, due to the volume of traffic, congestion at the I-89 intersection and a history of traffic accidents.
The town’s interest in the area had inspired studies in the past, dating as far back as 2005 with a study examining the water supply and wastewater feasibility in the district. Since then, the town also explored the economic feasibility of the area, as well as studies for pedestrian traffic and development. Those studies, according to Saladino, form the backbone of this new study.
“It’s great to say you want to build a village there, but if you build it, will they actually come?” Saladino said of the studies. According to the studies, growth was absolutely possible in the village, though development should focus on a tighter district, Saladino added.
The study, ultimately, is focused on road infrastructure in that area of the town, hence VTrans’s role in the project. It’s a $50,000 VTrans grant that’s currently funding the majority of the study, with another $10,000 matched by the NRPC.
But while the focus will be on transportation infrastructure, Saladino said the goal is to ultimately finish a study that can make recommendations for infrastructure that will help guide the town’s vision for land use and development in that area.
“One of my biggest goals is to make sure that this isn’t one of those studies that just goes on a shelf,” Saladino said. “How do we actually move this forward? What are the key steps? What’s holding back development?”
According to Saladino, 12,000 cars travel through the South Village every day on Route 7, with another 3,500 cars driving on the intersecting Ballard Road and Route 104.
That stretch of Route 7, according to Saladino, ranked 22nd in the state as a crash location, with VTrans figures citing 90 accidents spread out across that section of the highway between 2012 and 2016. Saladino pointed out that 15 of those accidents were at the intersection of Routes 7 and 104 alone.
“It’s bad, but it also makes it more likely to tap into safety funds that VTrans has in order to address these sort of safety issues,” Saladino pointed out.
One of the solutions raised for the traffic in this area of town was the construction of roundabouts to replace the current intersection of Routes 7 and 104. While roundabouts were unwieldy to some, they could dramatically cut down on accidents at the intersection, insisted Georgia’s NRPC board member and planning commissioner George Bilodeau.
“You’ll have fatalities with a light,” Bilodeau insisted. “You won’t with a roundabout.”
Bilodeau had produced handouts prior to the meeting about roundabouts. Those handouts levied statistics from the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board that pointed to a 35 percent reduction in crashes and a 90 percent reduction in fatalities in intersections after the installation of a roundabout.
The idea of a roundabout drew a mixed response from many of those present. Town residents were primarily worried about how a roundabout could impact businesses sitting at the intersection in question, as well as whether or not a roundabout would be able to facilitate traffic for the large semi-trucks that pass through Georgia daily.
“I know that change has to happen,” said the owner of hair salon situated on the intersection. “I’m just concerned that if there’s a roundabout… how’s it going to affect my driveway?”
The owner, who lives above the studio, added that she understands the need to mitigate the accidents in the intersection, saying that some of the crashes are large enough that she “can feel them when I’m sitting at my dining room table.”
Another resident, Jim Harrison, expressed his concern that a roundabout built in Georgia might not be large enough to handle some of the larger vehicles that would have to use it.
“If you go to New Hampshire, or you go to New York State, they have roundabouts that are built to the proper diameter,” Harrison said. “We don’t build them properly here.”
Harrison cited a single lane roundabout in Jeffersonville as an example, where, according to Harrison, the roundabout isn’t large enough to accommodate the traffic that it needed to move.
“It’s like taking the Highgate Airport and inviting the Air National Guard without extending the runway,” he finished.
Bilodeau and Saladino both noted that VTrans was limited by the amount of public land that was available when building the Jeffersonville roundabout, and that there might be room in the South Village for something larger and more capable of handling the needed truck traffic.
They also added that, while a roundabout might be more expensive than installing a light, there could be sizable grants available that would offset those expenses.
Residents also raised concerns about the visibility on some parts of Ballard Road, where a bridge could obscure pedestrians from oncoming traffic. They also expressed that they wanted a sidewalk somewhere in the area for pedestrian traffic.
“A sidewalk on Ballard would be awesome, instead of risking our lives to go to the ice cream stand,” another resident suggested.
The contractors and town officials facilitating the discussion were grateful for the audience’s feedback, with their concerns proving that both the study and public comments were important going forward, Bilodeau said.
“Basically, this is why we’re here tonight,” Bilodeau said. “We’ve seen this coming. … We know we have to do something.”
Public comments continued well after the initial meeting ended, with Georgia residents gathering around tables outside the meeting room with engineers to talk through some of their suggestions and concerns for the South Village. The groups were collected around maps of the district, with engineers sketching out some of the residents’ suggestions.
Another public comment session is planned sometime in June, where VHB plans on presenting some of the earlier findings of their study, Saladino said.