September 23, 2014

Study predicts near-gridlock by 2018

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Taft Corners improvements recommended

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Motorists face increasingly clogged traffic around Taft Corners unless millions of dollars are spent building new streets and widening the Interstate 89 overpass, a new study concludes.

The study evaluates a proposal to construct grid streets around Taft Corners in order to relieve congestion on U.S. 2, Vermont 2A and Marshall Avenue, the town’s busiest thoroughfares. Traffic snarls are already commonplace on those roads, but the study predicts they will get much worse over the next 10 years.

“What it shows is that we can in fact improve traffic congestion at all the intersections if we are willing to invest in the improvements,” said Town Planner Lee Nellis. If the new streets are not built, he added, “gridlock might be too strong a word, but there will be lots of problems.”

An estimated 10,000 cars roll through the Taft Corners area during morning and afternoon commutes. More vehicles are expected as a handful of proposed subdivisions are built out over the next decade.

The town commissioned the $50,000 study done by South Burlington-based Resource Systems Group. It analyzes the impact of four road-improvement alternatives:

Build a road called Depot Street that runs east to west from Harvest Lane near Home Depot to Vermont 2A near the Vermont State Police barracks.

Extend Helena Drive in Blair Park southward to Trader Way near the Hannaford grocery store. Build a street connecting Vermont 2A at Wright Avenue to Harvest Lane.

Complete both of the above projects.

Build no new roads, but widen existing streets and improve intersections.

Widening the Interstate 89 overpass at Vermont 2A, however, is the key to making vehicles move smoothly, said Mark Smith, senior consultant with Research Systems Group.

“The whole thing unravels” unless the I-89 underpass is widened to include additional lanes, Smith said.

Southbound traffic approaching the I-89 interchange on Vermont 2A already backs up during the evening rush hour. Smith said the study does not even address what happens in 10 years without the interchange widening because the computer model showed such “tremendous delays” if it is not fixed.

It remains to be seen how – and if – the road improvements will be funded. The study estimates that it will cost about $4.1 million to build all the grid streets. Smith estimated the interchange widening will cost $10-$15 million.

The town has about $750,000 saved in transportation impact fees developers have paid over the years. That is enough money to fund smaller improvements such as new traffic signals, but nowhere near enough to pay for the grid streets.

An early draft of the new Williston Comprehensive Plan suggested the town allow increased density in commercial areas if it encouraged developers to build some of the grid streets.

That provision was altered after Selectboard members bridled at the idea of doing anything that might permit more big-box stores. The plan approved by the board leaves open the possibility of increasing density while maintaining previous agreements with Maple Tree Place and Taft Corners Park that limit the number of box stores.

Funding for the I-89 interchange project is an even bigger question. The state has a long backlog of road construction projects and not enough money to pay for them all, transportation officials say.

There are currently no plans to improve the Williston interstate interchange, said Christine Forde, senior transportation planner with the Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The study rates traffic congestion at intersections around Taft Corners by looking at the current level of service and how each will function in 2018, both with and without the various road improvement alternatives.

Each intersection is given a grade from A to F, a standard measure of traffic congestion. For example, signalized intersections rated an “A” have delays of less than 10 seconds; those given an “F’ have more than an 80-second delay.

Currently, all but one of the intersections near Taft Corners are graded “C” or better during weekday rush hours, according to the study. The Marshall Avenue intersection rates just under a “D.”

If no improvements are made, the computer model used by the study shows some of the intersections will get a failing grade by 2018. Smith said the study assumes additional development will occur in the next decade around Taft Corners, particularly the giant Finney Crossing project, which, if approved, will include more than 350 housing units.

“If you don’t do any of the alternatives, traffic will become unbearable,” Smith said.

If no new roads are built but improvements are made at I-89 and other intersections, congestion remains roughly at its current level, the study shows. Building all the grid streets “would relieve the current congestion as well as expected future congestion,” according to the study.

The Selectboard is scheduled to hear a presentation on the grid street study at its Sept. 18 meeting. The meeting starts at 7 p.m.

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