Joint Board considers automatic vehicle testing in town

BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – On Tuesday, Dec. 29, the Joint Board discussed automatic vehicle testing in Bellows Falls and Rockingham with the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

Joe Segale and Michael Obuchowski from VTrans presented the specifications and benefits of automation. Segale gave examples of current testing, which included shuttles and delivery using both small vehicles and tractor trailers.

He explained that town and village involvement, a human operator at least 21 years old, and a $5 million liability policy – paid for by the testing company – were required.

Trustee Wade Masure asked about other Vermont municipal interest. Segale said Covid-19 slowed the process and VTrans now had the permit applications, but for now Bellows Falls, Rockingham, and Springfield were interested in the program.

Masure questioned VTrans authority on Class 1 Highways, but left Class 2, 3, 4 roads for municipality approval. Segale explained Route 5 was a Class 1 highway and the municipality would be given 60 days notice and comments would be considered.

Selectboard Chair Gaetano Putignano explained, “There are 12 crosswalks from the bridge to the bank,” and asked, “How does the car identify that a person might want to cross or they’re just standing there?”

Segale said, “Most of the testing around the country [is] in urban areas.” He explained the vehicle uses visual recognition coupled with Lidar, a sensing method that surrounds nearby objects with a three dimensional 360-degree view. He said the vehicle “builds information in its system and then it can react accordingly.”

Segale said Vermont offers challenging weather and, although Bellows Falls is “very urban,” it is surrounded by “rural countryside and graveled snowy roads.”

Village President Deborah Wright moved to ask management to form a working group, and Municipal Manager Scott Pickup agreed that would be beneficial prior to a resolution.

Wright wondered, “Why people [are] not more excited?” She reminded everyone that the test would have a human in the vehicle.

She said that this year especially “The biggest challenge [was] to find ways to provide services and goods with minimal human contact… This is the best opportunity to move forward.”

Both boards unanimously passed the motion to form a working group to start the process of automatic vehicle testing in Rockingham and Bellows Falls.

Later in the meeting, Wade Masure asked for a moment of silence to acknowledge the 40th anniversary of the deaths of Bellows Falls firefighters Terry Brown and Dana Fuller. Brown and Fuller died Dec. 29, 1981 while fighting the Star Hotel Fire. The Fireman’s Memorial Park near the location commemorates firefighters Brown and Fuller with granite benches.

Fire Chief Shaun McGinnis applied for a grant last year and the BFFD has raised money to build a larger memorial for Brown and Fuller at that location in 2021, also the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

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