Irene stalls progress, A/B Boulevard project not deemed high priority
Oct. 27, 2011
By Luke Baynes
It has been almost two months since tropical storm Irene left the state battered in its wake, but the worst storm in Vermont’s history is still fresh in the minds of its residents and officials.
The Circ Highway Alternatives Task Force met on Oct. 20 for the first time since Irene to discuss alternatives to the stalled Circumferential Highway project — but not before hearing a report from Vermont Secretary of Transportation Brian Searles on the full extent of the storm’s damage.
The near-capacity crowd at Williston Town Hall listened intently as Searles related that the state highway system was “about 88 percent” ready for winter and that 79 bridges remain closed on the local level — some of which won’t be open before winter. He said the total cost of the reconstruction effort to the state would depend on whether the federal government waives the $100 million cap on disaster aid.
“The state of Vermont does not have the capacity to pay for the storm … we have to have federal participation,” Searles said.
With that bleak outlook and the prospect of limited Circ-related funding in mind, prioritization of short-term implementation projects and the scope of the alternatives’ project area were the primary items on the evening’s agenda.
“Right now we have in the ballpark of $350,000 in the current fiscal year program to work on Circ-related planning activities,” said Michelle Boomhower, executive director of the Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization and chairwoman of the Circ Task Force.
Boomhower explained that a primary goal of the Task Force is to have its agenda accepted into the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, thus making it eligible for federal funding.
“In essence, because of our status as (a metropolitan planning organization), we have the ability to advance a construction program recommendation, which becomes integrated — unless the governor decides to reject the whole program for the MPO construction area — into the (STIP),” Boomhower said. “And you have to be in the state’s transportation improvement program in order to receive federal funding, which is essentially the goal of what we’re trying to do here.”
The Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission released a preliminary ranking of project areas, as prioritized by a methodology agreed to at the Task Force’s Aug. 25 meeting.
In a three-way tie for first on the list were exit 16 in Colchester, the Vermont 2A/Vermont 289 interchange in Essex and the Severance Corners intersection in Colchester. Rounding out the top five were the Crescent Connector Road — which would connect Vermont 2A and Vermont 117 in Essex Junction — and the Vermont 2A/U.S. 7/Creek Road/Bay Road intersection in Colchester.
The Circ A/B Boulevard, a project that would connect I-89 in Williston with Vermont 117 and 289 in Essex — and one The Federal Highway Administration has already authorized the Vermont Agency of Transportation to proceed with — was not near the top of the list.
“The scoring system that we have devised ended up with not a single one of the top five projects being in Williston,” said Williston Selectboard member Chris Roy. “And if the goal and the intent is to provide a goal and a substitute in the near-term for what the Circ was hoped to provide in the near-term, I think we have a disconnect when the town through which the A/B segments (of the Circ) were going to run is not found anywhere (in the top five).”
Responding to assertions by Task Force members that none of the Williston projects are “shovel-ready,” Roy added: “One of the ironies is that because A/B was going to be built in the closer horizon, (Williston) has not proceeded as far down the path to do alternative projects because we’ve been repeatedly told that the Circ was right around the corner.”
Another point of conjecture regarding the scope of the Circ alternatives project was whether or not to include the areas surrounding Interstate 89’s exit 11 in Richmond and exit 17 in Colchester for project consideration.
“The intent is to provide improvements that would mimic the benefits of the Circ, and what’s interesting is when you look at Exit 17, the actual benefits of mitigation are far greater than any of the benefits with any of the major intersections within the study area that we all agree on,” argued Bryan Osborne, director of public works for the town of Colchester. “It seems pretty compelling that exit 17 is a logical place to extend the study area to.”
Dennis Lutz, Osborne’s counterpart with the Essex Public Works Department, disagreed.
“I don’t know what you put at exit 17 that’s going to improve traffic … short of maybe bus service, but from a practical point of view, you’re not going to do anything at that intersection that’s going to change any of the congestion in the corridor,” Lutz said.
Ultimately, the motion to exclude exits 11 and 17 from the project area was put to a vote. The measure passed, 10-6, with five members abstaining.
The Circ Task Force will reconvene on Nov. 9 to finalize the project list that will be submitted to VTrans for comment and consideration.