by Doug McClure
HARDWICK – At the August 6 Hardwick Select Board meeting, West Church Street resident Scott Merrill brought a petition signed by numerous residents concerned about vehicles speeding on West Church Street. The residents also expressed concern that the street is being used as a “cut-through” from North Main Street to Wolcott Street.
In response to the petition, Hardwick Police Department (HPD) Chief Aaron Cochran deployed a cruiser to periodically monitor the street and HPD installed a driver safety sign with a speed readout display. Some residents reported they have been watching the sign. Rev. Dr. Evelyn Lavelli said that after returning from a walk “I was partway down West Church, and I heard this car come whipping around the corner. And as he got right about where you live, that sign started flashing: 47 [m.p.h.] And literally, he slowed down. I started applauding.” Lavelli said she appreciated the sign, but feared it might only be a temporary measure.
Resident Michael Haveson said he has observed the sign flashing in response to speeding drivers multiple times.
Merrill said he believes the town should install “three to four more” signs as Woodbury and Craftsbury have done, but added that without enforcement the signs may not be effective. “I can’t believe the police can’t enforce it,” he said.
Haveson said that while he applauds the town for installing the sign, “enforcement is never going to happen.”
“This has been an issue for West Church Street residents for decades,” Haveson said. “I believe speed bumps will be the only remedy.” Haveson added that statistics support the idea that speed bumps slow traffic down.
“The town finally installed them at the diner,” Haveson said. “Some will argue that they make it difficult to plow in the winter, so, remove them in the winter.”
As of the August 19 select board meeting, Cochran said he had not yet retrieved data from the sign for the HPD to review.
“If you stand by watching cars drive by you, you’re not able to accurately judge the speed of the vehicle,” Cochran said, adding that speed can only be accurately observed “from head on.”
“We get a lot of people that say vehicles are speeding, when in fact the data doesn’t show that’s the case,” he said.
Cochran described law enforcement as a “trained eye” and said the average layperson “isn’t trained to judge speed.”
Chief Cochran said 25 m.p.h. is “the lowest enforceable speed in the state of Vermont. Anything under 25, or posted under 25, is basically [reset to] 50 m.p.h.” He said it is not legal to post a speed limit of less than 25 m.p.h.
Haveson said he believes the two 20 m.p.h. “suggested speed” signs on the street were posted by the town, and one of the signs shares a pole with the driver safety sign.
While Title 23 V.S.A. Section 1007 authorizes the local government “to establish effective and enforceable speed limits on town highways at not more than 50 MPH or less than 25 MPH,” the state also has a program that allows for speed limits of less than 25 m.p.h. The Downtown Designation program, a larger-scale version of the Village Designation that Hardwick obtained through the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, grants the “authority to post speed limits of less than 25 mph to help calm traffic and make the downtown a more pedestrian-friendly environment.” Twenty-three towns participate in the program, several of them smaller than Hardwick.
Among other benefits, designated towns become “eligible to receive loans, loan guarantees, or grants up to $100,000 for capital transportation and related capital improvement projects.” Such funding could be a boon for Hardwick, as the pedestrian traffic safety task force recommended numerous upgrades in the village and the select board has expressed concerns about funding the projects.
Hardwick and East Hardwick have been in the Village Designation program since 2003 and 2018 respectively, but Hardwick has not applied for the Downtown Designation. In the past few years, town officials have demurred when asked why the town has not yet applied.
While the most recent inquiry came from West Church Street, concern about speed limits has been raised many times before. On June 24, 2019, a pedestrian was struck in the village by a Ford F-350 while using a crosswalk on South Main Street. Police responding to the scene reported “no skid marks or evidence of braking” and theorized the woman was “clipped” by the vehicle. The motorist who struck the pedestrian told police she “didn’t remember seeing the female at all” and did not realize she had hit the pedestrian until she looked in her rear-view mirror and saw a woman lying in the roadway.
That section of South Main Street is approximately 500 feet long and recent studies suggested 6,000 to 8,000 vehicles per day pass through it. At the posted 25 m.p.h. speed limit it takes approximately 13 seconds to traverse that distance. Late last year, Hardwick formed a pedestrian safety task force to examine the issue.
In comparison, the straightaway section on West Church Street is roughly 720 feet long and approximately 24 feet wide. The street has a small sidewalk on one side. Vehicles are often parked on both sides of the street and, as Haveson noted, “there are young people, older people, and family pets navigating the West Church Street neighborhood.”
VTrans’ most recent data from 2019 estimates that an average of 2,884 vehicles traverse the corridor from Wolcott Street to North Main Street; an increase from 2014 estimate of 1,000 vehicles.
“This street is just a cut-across for Wolcott Street,” Merrill said.
“I think it’s unfortunate that people use West Church Street as a short cut,” Haveson said, explaining that it adds an “incredible” amount of traffic on the street and encourages speeding.
“While they are short-cutting, they are often in a rush and driving at speeds over the suggested speed of 20 mph, as well as over the posted speed limit of 25 mph,” he said.
Residents say while there are no reports of serious traffic accidents on West Church Street, there have been several close calls. They fear unless extra measures are taken, it could only be a matter of time before a tragic incident occurs.