October 30, 2014

Meetings will map out Circ options

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Analysis of alternatives to be explained

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

An analysis of Circumferential Highway alternatives will be unveiled next week, a study that may provide clues about which of 10 options is still considered feasible.

Public meetings to discuss the study are scheduled in Burlington, Essex Junction and Jericho. The analysis is the latest phase in a court-ordered Environmental Impact Statement, a comprehensive look at the impact of the original highway’s design as well as various alternatives.

No information about the analysis was available last week. Vermont Agency of Transportation spokesman John Zicconi said the study was not ready and the agency wanted to release the information to everyone at once.

The meetings are intended to help residents understand the complex analysis while fulfilling highway officials’ promise to keep the public informed about the EIS’s status.

“We told everyone that we would take a thorough look at things and involve the public at every step of the way, and that’s what we’re doing here,” Zicconi said.

Federal and state highway officials are working with a consultant to study the impact of the Circ and nine other options. The alternatives fall into three broad categories: build the originally planned limited access highway or another road between Interstate 89 in Williston and Vermont 117 in Essex; widen Vermont 2A and/or replace traffic lights with roundabouts along that road in Williston; or combine elements from each of the plans. There is also a no-build option.

More than three years have passed since a federal court ruled that a new Environmental Impact Statement was required. Judge William Sessions sided with environmental groups that filed a lawsuit to block the Circ, saying that the EIS done in the 1980s was outdated.

Transportation officials have since held 23 public meetings and mulled dozens of potential alternatives.

The process is running well behind schedule. Last year, the state said the analysis of options was taking longer than expected and delayed its release until this spring.

State officials now estimate that step will be completed by early summer. It is unclear when the entire EIS process, which ends with selection of a preferred alternative, will be completed.

The slow progress has annoyed the Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization. The CCMPO board last month grilled state and federal transportation officials about the study’s status.

Some board members were irked that they had heard little about the study for a year, according to minutes from the board’s April 18 session. Others wondered why there were still so many alternatives.

“Why can’t they narrow it down to a more manageable list to receive comment on?” said Jeff Carr, a Williston economist who serves on both the CCMPO board and the Essex Town Selectboard, in an interview. He said leaving so many options on the table is “counterintuitive” and will only cause further delays.

Transportation officials told the CCMPO board that the alternatives have in fact been whittled down from the original list of 60, according to meeting minutes. They noted that the study is being closely scrutinized and that they were obligated to include any viable alternative.

None of next week’s meetings are being held in Williston because there was no location available that fit scheduling and space requirements, Zicconi said. A large space was needed because of the meeting’s open house format, in which participants can browse graphical displays placed around the room.

The meetings will allow the public to better understand the pros and cons of each option as well as give them one more chance to influence which design is chosen, Zicconi said.

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