Vermont-17, the App Gap, is known among New England motorcyclists as one of the best motorcycle roads in region. Packing 59 turns in the tight, technical six miles between Starksboro and Waitsfield, the App-Gap is everything a mountain road should be: scenic, challenging and flowing.
The road is a “must ride” tourist attraction for motorcyclists, cyclists and leaf peepers. The Killington Classic motorcycle rally features the Gap as part of the “Green Serpent” tour and Americade – a Lake George NY motorcycle rally – includes it in their Vermont High Gaps tour.
Climbing from 637 feet in Bristol to 2,378 feet at the high point, road bicyclists view the road as a test. The annual Green Mountain Stage Race bicycle race ends its mountain stage at the parking lot at Appalachian Gap and cyclists regularly challenge themselves with the climb as part of the fabled Vermont gap rides.
Fall is prime time for Motorcyclists in the Gap
But, when out-of-state motorcyclists ask for a road recommendation, I no longer send them over the Gap. The Agency of Transportation lists the road in “poor condition” and it has become increasingly dangerous to ride.
The Agency of Transportation is well aware of the road's condition. Two years ago, highway crews began posting "bump" signs, followed by "bumpier" and "bumpiest".
Every two years, crews measure the condition of State maintained secondary roads. A sophisticated survey van, equipped with cameras and sensors is driven over the roads. The sensors measure roughness and take measurements to determine rutting. High resolution cameras record the amount of cracking and give engineers additional data on road conditions.
The road remains beautiful
The data is then put into a computer model for analysis. The model projects the road's condition into the future. Engineers can apply different treatments and fixes to the road through the model and project the improvement possible with various treatments. Roads that show the most improvement -- after factoring in cost and usage -- rise to the top of the State’s priority list.
For the App Gap, becoming a high priority is a challenge. “It’s a tough call for a road that sees so little traffic,” said Mike Hedges, Director of Asset Management for the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
The road requires a major project to bring it back up to standard. Because of the high project cost, relative to usage, the road doesn’t rank high on the purely objective criteria that drives eighty-percent of the State’s road repair budget.
The remaining twenty-percent of the road budget is more discretionary. Local and Regional planning boards have input into the discretionary budget which can consider factors like safety, tourism and economic development. The Gap is shared between Chittenden, Washington and Addison Counties, which have varying priorities towards tourism and economic development.
Heather Ragsdale of Starksboro lives on Vermont 17 and has seen more than her share of motorcycle accidents. Ragsdale’s house is at the beginning of the twisty section of App-Gap and riders frequently stop at her house to use the phone after a crash (there is little to no cell coverage in the Gap). She has even had motorcycles crash on her front lawn.
In June she decided try to raise awareness of the dangers of the road. She posted a sign on the west end of the Gap showing the number of days since the last motorcycle crash. Ragsdale and her sons made it a family project to maintain the count all summer.
“The longest we went without a crash this summer was something like 23 days”, Ragsdale said in late-September. “Sometimes on weekends, there would be 2 or 3 [accidents] in a day”.
Sign in App-Gap reminds riders of danger ahead
The sign is a stark reminder of how frequent crashes have become on the road. “It’s not 100% accurate,” Ragsdale said. She counts crashes by the number of riders who show up at her house asking for assistance. He neighbors also report crashes to her when riders show up at their houses.
Given that some falls do not require outside assistance, one can guess that the actual number of crashes is higher than the multiple crashes per week that Ragsdale is able to report.
The number of actual crashes is certainly higher than the number reported to the State of Vermont each year. Between 2009 and 2013, the official number of crashes in the Gap was 17, including one fatality in 2009. In 2014, the State only has numbers for June, when there were 3 crashes.
The statistics gap isn’t hard to figure out: State law requires only crashes involving an injury or property damage in excess of $3,000 to be reported. Undoubtedly, many motorcyclists would prefer not to report their accident. But, because many crashes go unreported, decision makers see only a partial picture when evaluating road safety.
By definition, when a road is rated in poor condition – as the App Gap is currently -- ruts and cracks require corrective action by the driver. Mid-corner bumps, longitudinal cracks, pavement ripples in braking zones and washboards wreak havoc with motorcycle suspensions as riders try to keep the credit card sized contact patch gripped to the surface.
When a rider does get injury in the Gap, you can be sure they will have to wait before help arrives. Calls go to a central dispatcher and crews are then dispatched from Bristol or Waitsfield to reach the scene. First responders could easily be 30 minutes or more away – a delay which could be crucial in a serious accident. Factoring transport to the nearest emergency room, the time between crash and full medical attention could easily be more than an hour.
“I haven’t seen a project triggered on that piece of road through 2017,” Mike Hedges said, when reviewing planned projects.
Hedges understand motorcyclists concerns about the road, because he is a rider (BMW R75S). He said that road priorities are reviewed annually and the Gap could see a project in 2016, depending on other priorities in the system.
Without repairs, the future is easy to project: the road will continue to deteriorate. Safety and ride quality will continue to decline and what was once one of the best motorcycle roads in the Northeast will become an embarrassment, best hidden from view.
Vermont Makes Improvement For Riders
It isn’t all bad news for motorcyclists when it comes to State roads. Vermont has made some road changes specifically with motorcycle safety in mind, said Mike Hedges, Director of Asset Management for the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
Crack sealer – also known as “tar snakes” and worse by riders – used to be 5 inches wide. The State has reduced their width to 2 inches and the Vermont specification requires the fill to be flush filled.
Vermont is the only state in the country that requires a crushed glass additive in the thermoplastic road stripes used at intersections. The Vermont spec requires that the stripes by thinner and less intrusive and the additive improved traction on the stripes.