(This story was first published in the May 16, 2013 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
QUECHEE — Hartford Police are saying it will be weeks before a state police accident reconstruction team weighs in conclusively on which driver was responsible for a headon collision recently that left a Hartland woman dead at the scene on Route 4 in front of the old Fool on the Hill farm stand.
The accident involved an empty 18-wheel horse transporter that was eastbound after having just begun its journey in Taftsville and a westbound Subaru Forester driven by Patience Hutt, 40, with the crash occurring just over the town line into Hartford near “The Wall” indoorclimbing facility. The impact demolished the front end of Hutt’s Subaru and pushed it backwards up Route 4 nearly fifty yards until it spun to a stop at the entrance to Shepard’s Construction while the large transporter slid clear across the westbound lane and over the embankment opposite with it’s driver’s side front wheel bent up underneath the large diesel engine.
The same accident reconstruction team that spent hours into the night using GPS equipment to map what happened Thursday at the scene also released a report last week on an earlier fatal accident that killed two local residents March 7 in a crash that took place on Route 4 closer to the Fat Hat Factory.
That report reversed the initial information which had blamed Woodstock driver Nina Dimick for that head-on collision and instead concluded that Corey Daniels of Quechee was actually the driver who had first crossed the center line, striking and ripping off the rear wheel of a utility trailers that was being towed in the opposite direction, before continuing on into the front of Dimick’s car. Both Dimick and Daniels died as a result.
Though this Thursday’s crash occurred mid-afternoon during clear and dry conditions, it nonetheless sparked a great deal of discussion in both Woodstock and Hartford about the perceived faults of Route 4 and the need to make a host of safety improvements along the roughly six miles of pavement that runs from Exit 1 of Interstate 89 in Quechee through to the eastern edge of Woodstock Village.
“In light of what’s happened, I really think something needs to be done,” Woodstock Fire Chief Butch Sutherland said in a call to the Standard.
Sutherland said he has already contacted his counterpart in Hartford, Chief Steve Locke, and discussed the possibility of having a small rumble strip ground into the center yellow lines of Route 4 rather than just on the shoulders of the roadway.
“That’s not to say they would have 100 percent saved anybody’s life (had they been there) but it’s a step in the right direction,” Sutherland said, adding, “We’re going to battle with this thing.”
“I won’t let my family drive on it,” said another town official who didn’t want their name printed alongside such a blunt assessment of the dangers involved because they have some public safety oversight responsibilities when it comes to Route 4.
Route 4 is a state highway and while Vermont’s road crews have talked for literally decades about the need to eventually tackle the winding menace and commit to what is known as a “full-depth reconstruction” of it, the state’s chief road design engineer said this week that it will realistically take the better part of a decade or more before all of the needed improvements are actually carried out.
Route 4’s most obvious and insidious problem is that it is so old, with portions dating to 1928, that it was first built as a series of square concrete slabs poured endto- end, much like sidewalks are still laid out. Those blocks, long since abandoned as a bad idea when it comes to highway construction, are still sitting underneath much of the roadway and explain both the regular rhythmic cracks that run from side to side across the road and the terrifying “trenching” that occurs right where the edges of those concrete slabs end and the asphalt pavement finds itself being pushed down by heavy traffic onto softer ground.
The long-term goal at VTrans is to dig all of that concrete out and “rubblize” it in place, using it to build a new subsurface for the highway but that is going to be “a monsterous job through all that pristine countryside”, according to Ken Upmal, the roadway design engineer who will eventually be responsible for redesigning Route 4.
“That is way out in the future. We are working towards that but we haven’t even programmed that project yet,” Upmal said of the full rebuild, noting that there are some smaller efforts that will probably occur soon, mainly the stabilization of an embankment that began to slide into the Ottauquechee during Tropical Storm Irene and rehabilitation of a dozen culverts on a windy stretch between the Mid-Vermont Christian School and Scotland-by-the-Yard.
Those specific projects are looking like they might get built in the 2015 construction season and somewhere in the next few years Route 4 will probably have individual sections repaved as a stop-gap effort, Upmal said, but he noted that while some state’s like Maine have been able to make quick work of concrete slab highway replacement the circumstances are different here.
“The problem with these slabs under the roads in Vermont is that they don’t have adequate material underneath them so if you pull the slab out you don’t have any structural support,” Upmal explained. “If you pull the slab you have to go down “full-depth” and so you are talking about five feet of excavation and then you are expanding out to “full width typical” which on a primary highway we would like to be 12-foot travel lanes with an 8-foot shoulder. I’m not sure that’s warranted on Route 4 but we’d like at least 5-feet of shoulder for bikes and pedestrians.”
“Now you are out 34 feet and you’ve got to put ditching for storm water and by the time you are done you have had a significant impact and you’ve gone beyond the existing right-of-ways,” Upmal said. “That puts you into Act 250 and all the environmental permits for wetlands, agricultural lands and historic preservation plus you have to move and relocate all the utilities along the highway and then you have to acquire all the easements for those utilities.”
“When you get into these full reconstructions along long linear stretches of highway there are extensive demands for permitting and right-of-way,” Upmal explained, adding, “Next thing you know everybody is complaining and they don’t want it.”
“The Agency of Transportation realizes the demands and the safety concerns on Route 4, and these recent accidents only bring it to the forefront even further,” Upmal said, adding, “It’s going to take time and be a significant effort (because) but the agency is committed to moving forward with a full-depth reconstruction of Route 4 between Hartford and Woodstock in the future, hopefully beginning in the next year or two.”
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