Road extension could smooth traffic (2/18/10)

Financing needed for ‘growth’ project

Feb. 18, 2010

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Plans for a new road linking U.S. 2 and Marshall Avenue are moving forward. Now the question is how to pay for the project.

Trader Lane extension would begin at an existing part of that road near the Hannaford grocery store and run northward for about a third of a mile to the intersection of U.S. 2 and Helena Drive. It is a key part of a long-envisioned network of grid streets that would ease traffic congestion and promote development in the commercial district near Taft Corners.

“It’s going to be a major road in the sense that it connects two other major roads,” said Town Manager Rick McGuire. “And it will improve traffic flow.

But it remains uncertain how the project would be funded. Construction itself would cost an estimated $1.7 million; acquisition of rights-of-way could add another $1 million to the price tag, said Williston Public Works Director Bruce Hoar.

The town has in the bank $485,796 in transportation impact fees that developers have paid over the years, according to Finance Director Susan Lamb. Those fees were designated for projects like the Trader Lane extension.

The rest of the money could be raised through one of two methods: a special assessment district or tax increment financing.

McGuire said the special assessment district seems the more straightforward option. Property owners benefiting from the road would each pay for a portion on the project.

The district could be formed if each property owner agreed to the levy, McGuire said. Otherwise, a town-wide vote would be required, 

Tax increment financing would allow the town to borrow money, then pay it back using property taxes from new development generated by the road. But McGuire told the Selectboard last week that method is “kind of a gamble” because of uncertainty that additional development – and hence more tax revenue – would materialize.

Williston won the state’s first-ever growth center designation in 2007, clearing the way for use of tax increment financing. The designation was designed to encourage compact growth and prevent sprawl.

Much of the land along the path of the proposed new road is owned by Taft Corners Associates. Jeff Davis, managing partner of that company and the developer behind Wal-Mart and other big box stores, said he has worked with the town for several years on the Trader Lane extension and supports the project.

“I think it would open the area up to additional development,” he said. “Some of the property is not developed to its highest and best use.”

The legal process to install a new town road also presents potential obstacles. The town must hold public hearings, survey the road, determine monetary damages to be paid to property owners and anticipate appeals.

Trader Lane extension would be the first of a long-planned series of grid streets that are including in Williston’s Comprehensive Plan and viewed as essential for smoothing traffic around Taft Corners.

A 2006 study commissioned by the town predicted “tremendous delays” in traffic within 10 years if the grid streets were not built.

The study looked at extending Trader Lane and linking Harvest Lane to Vermont 2A with a new road called Depot Street. It also considered the option of simply widening existing roads. But the estimated price tag for all the projects was a daunting $20 million, with about three-quarters of the money going to pay for the overpass widening. 

The permitting process for Trader Lane is well underway, Hoar said. The town still needs an Act 250 state land-use permit.

McGuire said it will be at least two years to navigate the permitting, road-building and financing processes for Trader Lane. But he said it will be worth the effort.

“Jobs are an important thing right now,” McGuire said. “I think this will probably create jobs by encouraging commercial development.”