Stuck in Smugglers Notch

The third tractor trailer of the year got stuck in the Notch in August.

Who’s to blame for those trucks that keep getting stuck in the Smugglers Notch section of Route 108?

You could blame Florida man.

Three of the five trucks that ended up stuck in the boulder-laced mountain road this season were driven by Florida truck drivers, and this year was no outlier in that regard.

Drivers from the Sunshine State have gotten their trucks stuck in the Notch 12 times over the past 11 years.

Runners up are Quebecois truckers with nine and Massachusetts with six over the same period, making Floridians predominantly responsible for closures of the roadway between Stowe and Cambridge, from the time it opens in the spring to its closure at first snowfall.

With five stuck-truck incidents in 2022, the number is down from last year’s six and the seven that occurred in 2020. The average number of incidents between 2009 and 2020 was 8.4 a year; 2013, 2014 and 2017 all saw 12 stuck-truck incidents.

It’s this kind of mystery that Todd Sears and his colleagues at the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s operations and safety division are attempting to unravel as the state makes a major push to address a phenomenon endemic to this unique piece of highway.

The agency has employed the services of engineering consultants at the Randolph-based Dubois & King to help analyze the situation and propose solutions. The study is only in its beginning phase, but community input events like the one held at the Green Mountain Technical Center in Hyde Park earlier this month have already helped engineers gauge the public’s appetite for potential changes at the Notch.

Possible changes could include the installation of multiple roundabouts strategically placed to allow trucks an area to turn around once they’ve gone too far; a height-restrictive archway constructed as a physical reminder that trucks won’t fit through the Notch; and the construction of a chicane, a set of artificial obstacles that mimics the tight boulder formation at the top but constructed in an area where truckers won’t get stuck, according to Sears.

The agency is also actively soliciting suggestions from the public. The enthusiastic response to the Hyde Park meeting garnered 300 responses to a survey being conducted by the Lamoille County Planning Commission, the results of which have not yet been made public.

The Dubois & King study won’t be finished until spring, and any actual changes to the Notch’s infrastructure will be even further down the road, with plenty of stops along the way for public input.

As the agency considers changes that would directly address the stuck-truck problem, other changes are underfoot as well.

At a meeting held at the Cambridge Historical Society in August, the Lamoille County Planning Commission presented a separate agency plan to change parking infrastructure in the same section of road where trucks often get stuck, an area that sees swarms of visitors and is plagued by haphazard parking in the summer and during leaf peeper season.

Those updates are planned for 2023.

These simultaneous projects illustrate how the Agency of Transportation seeks to manage the dueling purposes of the Smugglers Notch highway, which functions as a major connective artery and a popular tourism destination.

But the steady decrease in stuck truck incidents since 2017 begs the question: Is even one stuck truck in Smugglers Notch one too many?

“If we saw a multi-year trend of four, five, six stuckages, where our average was five and it used to be 10, it would mean that we have been doing something right in the past, but it also means we’re going to continue to see some stuckages,” Sears said.

Sears acknowledged that the agency is keenly aware of the issues and inconveniences caused by the often hours-long Notch closures. He said the state is also wondering how far it should go with potential infrastructure changes and whether it’s worth the investment required when the rate of trucks getting stuck is declining year over year.

The agency’s strategy of making minor adjustments around the margins, including outreach to trucking industry media about the Notch, working with popular GPS providers to add warnings, and both a wider range and more specific signs warning trucks to keep out or face thousands in fines, has potentially contributed to the decrease in incidents.

In another strategy this season, the agency coordinated with Stowe police to establish consistent patrols at the entrance to the Notch on the Stowe side and periodic visits to the Cambridge side.

This strategy netted concrete results, according to Stowe police chief Don Hull.

“While the patrols were assigned to the monitoring detail, there were several trucks that were stopped by the patrol before they entered the Notch,” he said. “The monitoring patrol was randomly scheduled throughout the summer and fall.”

Despite its success, Sears doesn’t know if the police partnership will continue into next year, and Hull said there would have to be a resource evaluation to determine if his department could continue it.

Regardless, Vermonters, even those whose daily commute come the summer won’t involve Route 108, will continue to keep a close eye on any proposed changes. The Hyde Park meeting in November was covered extensively by local and statewide media that rarely pay attention to the other municipal meetings in the region.

What is it that’s so enthralling about Smugglers Notch?

“It’s an area of just breathtaking natural beauty, so I think it warrants the attention. I love the attention that it gets. I don’t like that it gets attention for these reasons, but I think it’s a very Vermont kind of problem. Nobody’s dying up there. People are getting aggravated, people are getting mad, but it’s largely regional, and I think that’s part of the reason that it gets so much attention,” Sears said.

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