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Congestion pricing, Part 2

Over recent decades theres been a lot of fairly heated rhetoric about the growing traffic crisis on U.S. Route 7, and as so frequently is the case, a look at the numbers doesnt support the rhetoric. Unlike the public schools, the State Highway Department (its name is now the more-prestigious-sounding Agency of Transportation) hasnt yet decided to keep its numbers secret so as to prevent unwanted analysis by outsiders, and so you can go to the web site to see the daily traffic count for, say, various points along the one-time great Road (meaning a six-rod right-of-way, or 99 feet) in recent years. In the Middlebury area, the numbers vary from less than 10,000 to about 15,000, and, interestingly, they havent been growing in unsustainable (ya gotta love that word) manner in recent years; some points have actually shown a minor year-to-year decline. Brandon scores at the low end of that range, Rutland at more than twice as much. Nevertheless, in politics ( yes, Virginia, there is an element of politics in publicly-funded road design and construction), facts count for less than perceptions, and so the belief that Middleburys Route 7 traffic crisis is real and growing trumps the reality of the fairly light actual daily traffic volume. In fairmess to the gridlock-predicting doomsayers, Middleburys 18th century downtown road layout isnt particularly conducive to efficient modern vehicular flow, and so the multiple right-angle turns (and turn-offs) around the former courthouse site, now a tiny little green just south of the Middlebury Inn do indeed present an insoluble traffic engineering problem. Yes, you can design a more efficient highway through the center of the village, provided youre willing to place the pavement close to, if not touching, some architecturally commanding old buildings, pave the green, put in some cuts and fills so the taller trucks can wheel through the curves without overturning as they now occasionally do, and so on. If youre not so willing, you can choose to let things stay as they are (beneficial side effect, according to some in town: visible congestion prevents further unwanted growth) or you can try something different. Thirty years ago, for example, a well-known College on the west side of the village tried (and failed, for reasons I wont recite here) to facilitate a bypass on the east side. A west side bypass is (understatement) unlikely; an overhead road equally so. That leaves a tunnel. Id propose one which goes underground at the north end near the industrial park, has a station stop somewhere within walking distance of downtown (smart-growthers love pedestrianism) and emerges somewhere near the retail commercial park on the south end. It could underlie the less-developed lots just east of downtown, thus enabling cut-and-cover construction using relatively low-cost pre-cast concrete square-arch forms, where backyards and parking lots would be only temporarily torn up. The cost would be paid by users, under the Congestion Pricing principle: if you want to save time and stress navigating through Middlebury (older traffic counts showed that most drivers in the corridor do, although contemporary data dont differentiate between through and local traffic) you can pay a small fee for the benefit. With contemporary electronic technology, no toll-booths are needed: vehicle license plates will be videoed and their owners billed, as is currently done on Torontos Highway 407. From an engineering point of view, the tunnel idea is eminently feasible; the Dutch, who know a thing or two about saving the centers of old villages and the outlying farmland by putting traffic underground, have been doing it for decades. But engineering doesnt control; politics does. Since this is an opinion piece, heres my opinion: there is a dominant (not majority, perhaps, but certainly forceful) anti-infra-structure-investment mindset in Middlebury which would skillfully oppose it, and would rather see continued congestion as a growth suppressor rather than a tunnel as a traffic facilitator. Even when they wouldnt have to pay for it.

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