Only four miles of highway built to date
March 20, 2008
By Greg Elias
The Circumferential Highway's price tag now tops $93 million, just a fraction of what will be spent in coming years if the project is ever completed.
The state Agency of Transportation supplied the figure in response to a request from the Observer. The agency reviewed records dating back to 1983, when the project first received federal funding, to calculate total expenditures to date.
As originally planned, the Circ was to carve a 16-mile arc from Williston to Colchester, bypassing traffic-choked roads in suburban Chittenden County. So far, only a four-mile stretch in Essex has been built.
If the remaining segments are never constructed, no other money is spent and none of the land already acquired can be sold, the project will have cost more than $23 million a mile.
"I'd say after spending nearly $100 million the state doesn't have very much to show for all that money," said Sandra Levine, staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, which has long opposed the highway as originally designed. "This project has been botched from the outset."
Even some Circ supporters were aghast when told of the total expenditures.
Williston resident Mike Coates labeled the escalating price tag "criminal," saying greater government oversight should have been exercised along the way. But he mostly points a wagging finger at environmental groups' numerous legal maneuvers to block the project.
The original budget for the highway was reasonable, Coates said, "but expenditures after that, to me, were just pouring money down a rat hole. We've got the Conservation Law Foundation and Friends of the Earth to blame for all this."
Levine was unapologetic about her organization's ongoing fight against the highway, saying it was an unnecessary project and the money could be better spent elsewhere. But she did admit her group and other environmentalists have generated ill will among highway backers.
"I think it's difficult to be the person who says the emperor has no clothes," she said.
Essex resident Sylvia Allen said she has long been frustrated by the project's delays. But she said the state must push ahead.
"What are they going to do, throw $90 million out the window?" she said.
Breakdown of the costs
More than half the cost to date has involved things other than road building, the state's numbers show. Slightly more than $39 million has been spent on construction, mostly for the Essex segment.
More money has gone toward acquiring rights-of-way, engineering and permitting. A total of about $48 million has been spent for those purposes.
The balance has funded a court-ordered study of the highway's environmental impact. A consultant has been paid $6.4 million so far to conduct the study.
In all, the project has cost $93,628,284.82, the Agency of Transportation calculates. The federal government has paid for most of the project, with its share ranging from 80 to 100 percent depending on the type and timing of the expenditure, according to Ken Robie, project manager for the Agency of Transportation. The state has picked up the rest of the tab.
State highway officials defended the expenditures, noting that paying for some things up front saved money. Buying most of the rights-of-way in the 1990s, for example, avoided rising land prices, said Agency of Transportation spokesman John Zicconi.
But officials acknowledge that spending so much money in advance represented a gamble. The gamble's success hinges on the outcome of an ongoing environmental study of the Williston portion of the project and potential future legal battles over the remaining segments.
In at least one instance so far, however, taking a chance on the Circ did not pay off.
In 2004, state and federal highway officials decided to move ahead with construction of the Williston segments despite knowing that environmental groups, including the Conservation Law Foundation, intended to sue to stop the project.
The job was put out to bid and construction began. But work had to be halted after a federal judge's ruling effectively mandated that the state conduct a new environmental impact study.
A total of $3.7 million has been spent on the Williston portion of the Circ, including a $1.2 million settlement this winter with J.A. McDonald Inc., the project's general contractor. The company sought compensation after its contract was cancelled.
Zicconi said utility relocation work could turn out to be worthwhile if the segment is eventually built as planned. That depends on the outcome of the ongoing study, called an Environmental Impact Statement.
The study has looked at dozens of alternatives to the original design for the Williston segments. Transportation officials settled on three groups of options: the original design, improvements on Vermont 2A, or hybrid approaches that combine elements of the other options. Selection of a preferred alternative is scheduled for this summer.
The alternatives come with estimated price tags ranging from $50 million to $90 million. The original design would cost $75 million.
The state now estimates that the entire highway will cost $275 million, a number that includes past expenditures. The figure, based on current road-building costs and assuming there will be no more delays, represents almost a 40 percent increase from the estimate in 2004.
It is likely, however, that the actual cost will be higher. Additional legal challenges are thought to be a near certainty. Because of the time elapsed since they were issued, it is likely permits will have to be updated, causing further delay. And road construction costs continue to rise.
Still, officials say they continue to be hopeful that the money spent so far will result in a highway that eases congestion.
"It's not necessarily all lost money yet," Zicconi said. "How much of it was a wise investment and how much of it was wasted due to issues beyond our control remains to be seen."
Expenses to date for the Circumferential Highway:
Engineering and permitting
Right-of-way acquisition/utility relocation
Environmental impact study
Source: Vermont Agency of Transportation