September 21, 2014

Officials cut worst of circ alternatives

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Plans involving home demolitions nixed

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Detouring around controversy, transportation officials have eliminated road-building proposals that would have routed thoroughfares near Williston neighborhoods.

A list of 23 options was narrowed to four as part of a court-mandated process that has been underway the past several months. The Environmental Impact Study will determine if the Circumferential Highway is built or another option is chosen.

The four options picked include building the Circ along its originally proposed route from Interstate 89 in Williston to Vermont Route 117 in Essex, adding lanes and improving intersections along Vermont Route 2A, or doing nothing.

Federal and state transportation officials axed 19 other proposals, some of which would have run new roads or widened existing ones through residential areas.

One option ran a new highway near Old Stage Road and would have involved buying property or even demolishing homes along the route. Another would have widened North Williston Road and a portion of Oak Hill Road, again requiring the purchase of private property. A third called for widening South and North Brownell roads to four lanes from Interstate 89 to Industrial Avenue.

The proposals prompted an Oct. 18 letter from Williston Selectboard Chairwoman Ginny Lyons opposing any proposal that deviated from the Circ as originally planned.

“Should the other build alternatives be pursued, they could have a dramatic negative impact on our community that runs counter to plans Williston has worked toward for the past 20 years,” she wrote.

The Circumferential Highway’s original route takes it near residential areas, too, specifically the South Ridge and Brennan Woods subdivisions. But the neighborhoods’ residents have known for years that the thoroughfare was planned.

In contrast, information about the new proposals was difficult to find. Details about the options were located pages deep in the study’s Web site, www.eis.org. Though the ideas were discussed at public meetings, none of those sessions were held in Williston.

Following inquiries from the Observer, the Web site was updated, and a link explaining the alternatives was added to the site’s home page.

Those involved with the process said it was necessary to look at all options — no matter how controversial — to ensure nothing was overlooked. But they acknowledge that the routes in and around residential areas could have affected the environment and provoked residents.

“Some of the environmental effects could have been showstoppers,” said Rob Sikora, environmental program specialist with the Federal Highway Administration office in Vermont. “You might have had profound impacts on nearby residents.”

Rich Ranaldo, Circ project manager for the state Agency of Transportation, emphasized that the first consideration in choosing options was whether they met the purpose and needs statement for the EIS study: improving mobility and safety along the Route 2A corridor while mitigating environmental impacts.

But he also said the time and expense of having to acquire property — and the possibility the state would have to purchase homes or condemn them if the owners refused to sell — was a consideration. The state long ago acquired the right of way for the Circ.

“Certainly, the impact on the environment as well as issues related to the taking of property were considered,” Ranaldo said.

As originally proposed, the Circ Highway carved a 16-mile arc through Chittenden County from Interstate 89 in Williston to Vermont Route 127 in Colchester. Only a small section of it has been built in Essex.

Preliminary work on the highway’s Williston segment had begun last year when a federal judge ordered construction halted until a new environmental study was conducted. The process includes considering alternatives to building the Circ.

Supporters of the highway say it is desperately needed to relieve congestion along Route 2A. Opponents, including Smart Growth Collaborative, the coalition of environmental groups that sued to stop construction, say there are more environmentally friendly, less costly ways to cope with traffic congestion.

A long list of options was compiled by state and federal officials after public meetings were held, part of a process called “scoping,” the first of the EIS process’s five steps.

The long list included 23 options in all. Some on the list included divided highways like the original Circ design but were located along a different route. Several other options involved widening existing roads.

For example, one alternative called for widening North Williston and Oak Hill roads to four lanes from Interstate 89 to Route 117 in Essex. That choice would have involved acquiring extensive right of way.
Another road-widening option was proposed for North and South Brownell roads. The project would have converted the road from two to four lanes and added a new exit to the interstate.

But perhaps the most controversial option involved building a limited access highway mimicking the Circ design but aligning it east of the original route, taking it between the South Ridge subdivision and Turtle Pond Road. It would have come close to or cut though wetlands and neighborhoods.

Many of the remaining options involved widening Route 2A or constructing the Circ, in some cases by combining interchange improvements with other projects.

Among that long list were proposals by the Smart Growth Collaborative, which earlier this year outlined three Circ alternatives: building a boulevard-style road called “ Circ Street” along the original Circ route; improving traffic flow along Route 2A with a series of roundabouts between Taft Corners and the Five Corners in Essex; and doing both projects. Those proposals have been in part incorporated into the four alternatives that made the cut.

The first option on the short list calls for improvements to Route 2A that could include road widening, synchronizing traffic signals or adding roundabouts. The second option includes those same improvements plus building Circ Street.

The third choice involves building the Circ Highway as originally proposed between Interstate 89 in Williston to the existing segment in Essex. The highway could be limited access or a boulevard that would include intersections, as proposed by Smart Growth Collaborative. The option could be combined with Route 2A improvements.

Finally, a “no build” option that would maintain the status quo is still on the table.

In the coming weeks, additional public meetings will be held, and the four alternatives and their variations will be analyzed in detail for their environmental impact, affect on development patterns and cost.

Then a draft of the EIS will be prepared and the public and other government agencies will be given another chance to comment before the final choice is made.

In narrowing the options to four, transportation officials tried to balance the public’s input with their professional judgment about what would best meet the study’s purpose and needs statement, said Jim Purdy, principal planner with The Louis Berger Group, the consultant hired to help conduct the EIS.

“It wasn’t a political decision,” he said. “We very much want to take the comments people make into consideration. But it isn’t a popularity contest.”

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