Drivers will need to pump the brakes along a stretch of Route 7 in Colchester soon, as state officials prepare to drop the speed limit from 50 to 40 mph.
The targeted area covers Route 7 from the Exit 16 corridor all the way to the entrance of the village. Town officials say they asked the Vermont Agency of Transportation to make the change with safety — and commerce — on their minds.
“For us, it’s a positive outcome all across the board,” director of public works Bryan Osborne said. “It is likely going to take some adjustment by the traveling public.”
Representatives from S.D. Ireland approached the selectboard last year requesting a right turning lane on Route 7 south that could funnel into its development on Severance Green. Currently, drivers can only exit the complex and enter Route 7 from that location.
Osborne said S.D. Ireland’s request didn’t necessarily prompt the town’s call to the state, noting staff has believed for years that the speed limit was too high in the area. Still, he said it confirmed a long held opinion that drivers were permitted to move far too quickly in that area.
“That’s not the kind of posted speed limit you want going through the middle of a growth center where you’re trying to promote mixed use development and a significant amount of pedestrian amenities and capabilities,” he said.
Speed limit practices differ depending on type of road in question — state highways or town owned roads. Because Route 7 falls into the former group, the selectboard submitted a request to VTrans back in August, Osborne said.
The proposal then headed to the agency’s traffic operation section, which conducts onsite traffic and engineering studies. Typically, that includes weighing crash and other technical datasets.
But one of the most significant indicators the agency examines is the 85th percentile speed, Osborne said. In other words, speed limits are partly based on the speed 85 percent of drivers feel comfortable driving on the particular roadway.
The town also uses the test when assessing its own roadways, Osborne said. In one case oft-noted by selectboard members, the test actually suggested the speed limit be increased in an area officials felt the limit was already too high.
To the town’s dismay, its Route 7 request was denied in September.
“We had made this request years ago and it ended in the same way,” Osborne said. “The difference between then and this time is we decided to take it a step further and we actually appealed the decision.”
The town gathered up a team of department heads, including police Chief Jennifer Morrison, economic development director Kathi Walker O’Reilly and others, for a trip down to Montpelier.
There, they provided testimony to a three-person state transportation committee, arguing the technical data didn’t paint a full picture of the situation at Severance Corners. Their decision was unanimous in the town’s favor, Osborne said.
“We don’t consider Route 7 through Colchester, particularly Severance Corners, to be a very rural roadway,” Osborne said. “We consider it to be a high speed, high volume, congested area.”
For O’Reilly, the economic development director, speed limits also represent a tool for cultivating an environment friendly to shoppers, diners, residents and workers alike.
Severance Corners is a designated growth center, with future plans to build out other “quadrants” of land. O’Reilly said a cohesive feeling between the sections is important.
“If it’s 50 mph, I’m not going to feel really safe crossing a road,” O’Reilly said. “When we’re asking either developers or businesses to invest in the area … part of our plan has to be [pedestrian]-friendly.”
Osborne and O’Reilly both said speed limits often require a balancing act. Pedestrians would likely be safer if cars never exceeded 15 mph, for example, yet drivers are often comfortable traveling at much higher speeds.
O’Reilly believes the town has successfully navigated that fine line with just a 10 mph-drop in this case.
“We are looking to have all of the components that make this a successful area there,” O’Reilly said. “We’re not trying to upend anyone’s apple cart; we’re just trying to look at this cohesively.”