By Lisa Loomis
Waitsfield Select Board chair Paul Hartshorn denounced engineers before breaking a tie vote on whether or not to accept a grant to assess whether it is possible to improve pedestrian access and safety on Joslin Hill Road.
"I don't like engineers. Every time we deal with engineers we end up with more cost," Hartshorn said, before voting with board members Chris Pierson and Scott Kingsbury to reject the state grant. Board members Logan Cooke and Sal Spinosa voted against rejecting the bid.
The board took that action at a crowded and heated meeting on September 8. At issue was whether or not the feasibility of improving pedestrian and bike safety on Joslin Hill Road should be assessed in advance of the town rebuilding the road next year. The study would have determined whether it was possible to create a shoulder or widen a shoulder on one side of the road or the other when the road is rebuilt.
With select board knowledge and approval, town administrator Valerie Capels applied for and received a grant for that work. The grant had a 20 percent local match that voters approved as part of the town budget at Town Meeting in March. The local share is about $8,000. The cost of rebuilding Joslin Hill Road will be between $1 million and $2 million.
The town offices were full of people wanting to weigh in on the current safety of Joslin Hill Road and also to express concern about the speed at which people drive on the road.
"I walk that road every day and I've seen animals killed because people simply can't slow down," a woman told the board.
"If you make it wider, people are going to go faster," said board member Kingsbury.
Several people raised questions about the scope of the work covered by the grant.
"The point of the study is an engineering analysis to examine whether it is possible to widen the road. The conclusion could be that it is not. We are not talking about bike lanes. We're talking about shoulders or someplace for pedestrians or bikers to be separate from traffic. The grant application specified that mature trees and stones walls would be considered. It would also determine the cost of improving pedestrian access, if it is feasible," Capels explained.
'That is one of the two hardest to maintain and most hazardous roads in the town. We as a board have to weigh the costs. If we have to hire an engineer to tell us if it's feasible, there's your answer," said Pierson.
"I drive and ride that road almost every day and most cyclists go up the East Warren Road," said resident Michael Sharkey.
"Not all the cyclists on that road are experienced riders," said Waitsfield Elementary School principal Kaiya Korb.
"Lots of our school population live up on Joslin Hill and Brook Road. The school bus can't go through the covered bridge and the parking lot at the school only has 11 spots. We encourage kids and families to walk and bike to school. It's not safe now and a lot of our population relies on that road to get to school," Korb continued.
"We're here to discuss whether we should look into options for non-car-users to be on the road, whether pedestrians, runners, kids on bikes can be accommodated," said Chris Badger.
"Doing this study was already approved. Why revisit things we've already decided to do? I live on Spring Hill and I walk to town to save money and because in my house we have four people and one car, I'd like a safe way to get to town without a car," Ann Bordonaro said.
"We're about to spend over a million dollars on an important piece of infrastructure. We have an 80 percent grant with 20 percent local match that voters have already approved spending. It is prudent to look at this before we spend the money on a major project like this," town resident Nicholas Harmon said.
"I make a motion to add Joslin Hill Road to the town's scenic road list," board member Kingsbury said.
Board member Spinosa objected, arguing that that topic was not on the agenda and was inappropriate for discussion without proper notice. He asked board chair Hartshorn to rule that Kingsbury's motion was out of order and that it be withdrawn. Hartshorn did so.
"This is only a study so we can inform ourselves about the different choices we have before us. The road is not going to be repaved before winter. It will get done next year. There is time to get the engineering study done in time to inform our Town Meeting vote. Moving forward with this will not delay the project. Bids have gone out. There's a pre-bid meeting tomorrow morning. We have the money. Voters have agreed to this. The voters have spoken on this. For good reasons. This is a smart thing to do before making a decision on a huge project like this. Let's get the study done," town resident Phil Huffman said.
"It could delay it," said board member Pierson.
"So if the engineers say it could be done for $2 million and it goes to vote at Town Meeting and gets voted down, special interests could petition for a revote and get voted again and get voted down and then we're another year out," Pierson continued.
"You could face the same situation in reverse if you pull the plug on the study right now and present voters with a proposal to rebuild that road without this information," Huffman responded.
Board member Cooke made a motion to move forward with the grant with a December 15 deadline for the study to be completed. It did not get seconded.
Kingsbury made a motion to reject the grant and have the board work with the community to widen the road if possible. Pierson seconded it and after several more comments from those present Hartshorn broke the tie and voted with Pierson and Kingsbury to reject the grant.
"But didn't voters already approve this project?" asked a resident.
"It is in the budget, we approved it," Huffman said.
Well you're big spenders then," Hartshorn said.
"That's not the issue. This budget was adopted by the town through its legal process. The board is now subverting the will of the voters, against the will of the voters," Huffman said.
Cooke disagreed, suggesting that the board made decisions to spend less money regularly.