Selectboard almost returns bicyclist safety grant

Selectboard almost returns bicyclist safety grant

Editor's note: Li Shen is a Selectboard member and was involved in the discussions.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, “sharrows” is short for “sharing arrows” and refers to a graphic painted on a road surface to indicate that bicycles share the traffic lane with motor vehicles.  The City of Lebanon is employing sharrows to make certain roads more bicycle-friendly and to encourage use of bicycles instead of carbon-emitting, motorized transportation.

The Town of Thetford was recently awarded a grant from VTrans to add sharrows to certain roads. The essence of the grant proposal is as follows:

Academy and Tucker Hill Roads serve as the main connectors to Route 132 and Route 113 in Thetford, and bring cyclists to the denser areas of town along Route 113.  Route 132 is the main artery for access to/from Strafford/Norwich and cyclists can be found using the full travel lane on Route 132. This section of Route 132 is marked as a bike route on the Vermont State Bike Map issued by the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing. The entire area (Route 132, Tucker Hill, and Academy Road) is utilized heavily by bicyclists and is also notable because there is an e-bike business on Academy Road on Thetford Hill.

The roads however are not currently marked to alert drivers to the potential for bike traffic. Tucker Hill Road, Academy Road, and Route 132 have almost no shoulder, and cyclists are currently riding in the travel lane without any warning to drivers.

In addition, both Academy Road and Tucker Hill Road pass through covered bridges in residential neighborhoods. Both of these bridges, the Union Village Bridge and the Thetford Center Bridge, are single-lane, dark, and narrow. Finally, residents who walk across the covered bridges to reach Town facilities complain that 1) vehicles go through at high speed; 2) vehicles travel too fast on the residential portion of those roads.

In response, Selectboard Chair Sharon Harkay polled residents on Academy and Tucker Hill Roads (about 26 in all) and said there was almost universal opposition to painting sharrows on roads. The objections were mostly along the lines that they would spoil the scenic look of the road, were “urban,” and might not work.

The grant was discussed again at the Selectboard meeting on June 7th. Harkay reiterated her objections. Harkay pointed to the poor condition of Tucker Hill Road and that this was more of a danger to cyclists. She added that there were already about five signs at the Tucker Hill bridge, which is adjacent to her house. She was of the opinion that motorists generally do not read signs.

Li Shen said that it is important to alert motorists on the approach to both covered bridges that the road narrows to a single lane. This is where bicycles need to pull fully into the travel lane. Sharrows at these locations would warn motorists to expect bicycles in the middle of the lane.

Selectboard member Steve Tofel was generally not in favor of sharrows, except at the locations highlighted by Shen.

Shen referred to a prior conversation with Town Manager Bryan Gazda in which he had indicated that VTrans might be somewhat “flexible” as to the use of the grant, so long as some sharrows were deployed. She suggested that there could be fewer sharrows but more roadside signage as an alternative way to encourage road-sharing with bicycles.

At the meeting Gazda clarified that while VTrans had expressed flexibility, they had not been definitive about a revised number of sharrows. Shen asked whether the grant would expire at the end of the year. Gazda informed the meeting that the money should be spent by the end of 2022.

Selectboard member Mary Bryant was not supportive of the grant in general. She said repainting the sharrows would be an ongoing expense. She was equivocal about additional roadside signage because of the visual impact, although adding signs to existing posts would be acceptable to her.  She made a motion to withdraw from the project. Shen countered that this was premature. There was no rush to execute the project, which need not be done until 2022. There was plenty of time to find out from VTrans how much of the grant could be repurposed. There was a general feeling that this was worth considering, so the motion was withdrawn.

Harkay softened her opposition to the project, saying that Route 132 was an official VT State Bike Route and is also being rebuilt. The new surface would be a good place to paint sharrows. Also Bob Walker, former chair of the Thetford Energy Committee, has pressed for incorporating bike lanes into the rebuilding project, but this notion had been rejected due to the large added cost of widening the road. Installing sharrows would address the desire for increased bicycle safety.

Gazda will contact VTrans to discuss what extent of repurposing the grant would be acceptable to them.