Greg Dennis

A chronicle of life in Vermont and the issues and foibles of its people.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Between the Lines

[This is a regular column of musings on Vermont life. Here's the latest]:

I’ve spent most of the past 30 years driving in Southern California, where the traffic is thick as a Vermont icicle in January. But because most of San Diego County was built for automobiles rather than people, the traffic flow there does have a certain pleasing logic, when it isn’t undergoing outright atherosclerosis.

So let’s get this out of the way: My qualifications for expounding on Middlebury’s traffic woes are negligible. I've been back often on vacation, but I haven’t spent the past 30 years waiting to turn left across Route 7 traffic outside the Middlebury Inn, as I’m sure some Midd residents must feel they have. My hearing hasn’t dimmed over time as my ears take in the echoing roar of bulk-milk trucks thundering through downtown, their diesel drone echoing off the brick walls of the visually pleasing but traffic-challenged Main Street.

Yet it must be said: While Addison County has become an even finer place to live in the 28 years I was lost in the SoCal wilderness, the one thing that has quite obviously grown worse is the traffic.

It’s especially striking that in a town where civic involvement is regarded as a birthright – and is blessed with an informed and lively body politic –no one even seems to be talking about the traffic these days. There’s virtually no recognition, or at least no current discussion, about how the infrastructure to deal with the seemingly endless parade of vehicles is crumbling right before our eyes, and beneath our tires.

It’s as if the traffic was even more intractable than the weather. At least people still talk about the weather.

A bit of perspective: It’s still, usually, possible to make your way through town in predictable fashion. A stop here to let a parked car out into the flow; easing back on the throttle there to wave another care car out into what would otherwise be an impenetrable intersection for a driver who could wait for 10 minutes before she could turn left. We generally struggle through.

By comparison, a friend of mine who lives north of San Diego reports that it recently took him more than 4 hours to make the trip north to Los Angeles – a journey that’s under 2 hours without traffic -- for a Bob Dylan concert. (Worst of all, they missed Merle Haggard’s opening set).

But I have to say that I’m scratching my head over the fact that the only apparent traffic improvement since 1976 is the addition of a single stoplight on Route 7. and the light wasn't even added where it was obviously needed, in front of the Congo Church where drivers risk dismemberment when they turn from Main Street north onto Route 7.

Instead, the light is north of the Green near the Swift House. Its presence doesn’t do anything to ease the glacier that is Route 7. But it has the signal advantage of making it easier to get back out onto 7 -- after you’ve completely circumvented downtown from the college side (Weybridge Street to Pulp Mill Bridge Road, across the shaky wooden bridge, past Greg’s Market – no relation – and back onto 7 courtesy of the “new” light.

Other than that, it’s the same old tangle. Court Square poses a particularly galling mess as cars and an interminable parade of big trucks (the price of country living) wend slowly around the square, past the inn, splitting and merging around the Green. On busy days for the College, this tangle mixes with the slow-and-go along Main Street across the Battell Bridge and up toward campus. It often takes 10 minutes to cover a stretch you could easily walk in 5.

So what? Everybody’s got traffic problems, right?

True enough. But it is Middlebury’s mark, even more than big-city Burlington’s and certainly more than most other Vermont towns’, that the traffic detracts significantly from what is otherwise an utterly beautiful village.

It’s not just the long trek to cross town. It’s not just the noise or the visual blight of cars backed up halfway to East Middlebury. It’s the sense of humans overwhelming their natural surroundings in a way that separates and alienates us from that environment. That’s a blessedly rare phenomenon here, and therefore all the more ugly when it’s a frequent feature of local life.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who lives here that the real mess is south of Court Square. When the elementary and high schools let out, the mistimed lights, school kids, trucks, shoppers headed for the supermarket, and all manner of other human intercourse combine in one giant, inert worm of vehicles.

The folks who plan local highway “improvements” have also been doing their fair share to worsen the Midd version of Nightmare on Court Street. This spring the highway crews have been repaving Route 7 toward the south. And in their wisdom – recognizing the highway is already too narrow to handle the load to which it is regularly subjected – they’ve gone about *further narrowing* the highway so the traffic will back up even farther.

Are there any solutions out there?

To her credit, Select Board member Peg Martin (who ought to get a crown for all the work she’s done on Middlebury’s behalf over the years) had the guts to say at Town Meeting this year that it really was past time to plan and build another bridge over Otter Creek. Without some serious spending that the town isn’t prepared to undertake, the wooden Pulp Mill Bridge will one day soon be a charming and unusable relic. And the Battell Bridge, the magnificent falls beneath, is
for miles to the north and south the only other way across Vermont’s longest river. Another bridge is an obvious necessity but it’s years away. Necessary but distant.

It used to be that the easiest way to start a fistfight here was to campaign for a Route 7 bypass around Middlebury. Its attraction in terms of (at least short-term) traffic relief is obvious, as Manchester, Vt. residents will tell you. But the options are limited and the political will just isn’t there. Everyone seems to have given up on such a Big Fix.

The College still holds enormous sway here, and to preserve the stunning views from campus, it has bought up much of the land to the west of the campus – geographically the easiest route for a new highway around town. The College won't sell that land for a bypass, and no local Slect Board would condemn it for a highway. To the east, Route 116 is slowly filling in with new homes as the farmland goes fallow and is sold to out-of-staters such as myself. (For the record, we bought a home just west of Route 7, an empty in-fill lot for which no farmland was tortured killed.)

And so we sit here stewing in our own fumes, and the fumes produced by visitors who have come here to get away all the traffic.


[Any thoughts on all this? Please post yours to the blog by clicking the link.]

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