SUNDERLAND >> Voters attending Town Meeting are likely to be asked to weigh in on a proposal that would seek to make it easier and safer to walk or bike on portions of two well-used local roads.
At a public meeting last week, members of the Sunderland Safe Roads Committee, a group of local residents working in conjunction with the Bennington County Regional Commision, shared a draft report of a "scoping study" prepared by Dufresne Group, a consulting and engineering firm based in Windsor, Vt. A final version of the report is expected shortly, before town meeting.
The objective of the project, which began last year, is to create a safe and accessible routes for pedestrians, bicyclists and other users of Sunderland Hill Road and Hill Farm Road, The study area covers the stretch of Sunderland Hill Road from the Chiselville covered bridge, through the town's elementary school, the Town Hall and the municipal garage, then west along Hill Farm Road, according to the study. At present, both roads, heavily used by motorists traveling through the area, lack amenities such as clearly defined walking paths or bike lines. If those were available, they might encourage more recreational use, as well as making it safer for area schoolchildren to walk to school.
Possible alternatives ranged from constructing full 4-foot wide bike lanes along both sides of Sunderland Hill Road to making smaller, incremental improvements such as broadening the shoulders of the roads, or parts of the roads, as well as possibly adding signage and road striping.
Residents voted during town meeting in 2014 to authorize the scoping study and put in $3,000 towards its cost. The remaining $27,000 for the scoping study was financed through a grant from VTRANS, the state's agency of transportation. The study was designed to explore the feasibility of making the possible improvements to the roads and the likely costs of the alternatives.
When residents converge for town meeting, they will be asked for their input on the possible next steps, said Select Board Chairman Mark Hyde. However, even if residents give a green light on the project or one of the possible versions, it will be a few years before any construction or work on the roads is likely to be undertaken, given the length of time involved in the grant process with VTRANS for a second grant to help fund the actual build-out, if one is endorsed by the voters, he stated in an email.
"The goal would be to present some options to the town and to have a vote to see if we can get a majority opinion on how the town should proceed," Hyde wrote. "If the town decides to proceed with one of the options, we could apply for a grant this year and then if we were to receive it we would have to have a binding vote at next year's town meeting to agree on how to fund it. Only after that vote could the town accept any grants and move forward with any changes."
Hyde stressed that the Select Board had not yet received the final report so that no option has yet been selected to present to voters attending town meeting.
At a meeting of the Safe Roads Committee held last September, the preferred alternative selected was one which would add 2-foot wide paved shoulder and both sides of sunderland Hill Road from the Town Hall to Chiselville Bridge, add a 4-foot wide paved shoulder on the southbound lane of Sunderland Hill Road from Dunham Road to the town office, with road striping and "share the road" signage. The estimated total cost of this alternative would be about $985,000, according to the report, and would be funded largely through a VTRANS grant, if the application was successful, with a 10 percent local match of funds.
But there are other options also in play. Some of the work could be done with the town's local road crew, and the overall cost probably lowered, but the town's 2-person road crew already has a lot of work on its hands simply maintaining the town's exisiting network of roads, making this option somewhat less attractive, Hyde said.
Colleen York, a member of the Safe Roads committee, said they had received a range of feedback so far over the course of the three public meetings they've held, and that everything from just making some incremental improvements to a windy stretch of Sunderland Hill Road from town hall to the municipal garage to the full blown version with the bike lanes was in play.
"It's a mixed feeling — there are some people who support it," she said. "We'll just have to wait and see if the town residents want us to proceed."
Christina Haskins, an engineering consultant with the Dufresne Group, said their recommendation would be to try to obtain a VTRANS grant to fund the project.
If the town decides to apply for a grant the application would be due in July, and it would probably be next fall before they knew if the application was successful. Then would come the design process, which could run from 2-5 years. Only after that would actual construction start, she said.
"Everyone who as attended the meetings have been vocal about the project being cost effective and not costing the town too much money," she said. "That's where we came up with the proposal of just widening the shoulders."
Sunderland's town meeting will be held at the Sunderland Elementary School starting Monday, Feb. 29, at 7 p.m. Polls will be open at the town hall from 10 a.m. - 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 1, to determine the items by Australian ballot not decided by floor votes the night before.