July 23, 2014

Tackling town transportation issues

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By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

“The squeaky wheel gets the park and ride.”

That phrase, uttered by Williston Selectboard member Debbie Ingram, summed up a theme of the Selectboard’s May 22 transportation-focused retreat.

During the four-hour retreat, the board heard updates from state, regional and town groups regarding a litany of transportation projects in Williston which, if they all come to fruition, could bring significant changes to the way residents get around town.

Williston Selectboard members expressed a determination to be the town’s advocates to ensure that projects in the hands of state and regional entities move forward, including a long-awaited Williston park and ride.

Vermont Agency of Transportation representative Ken Robie, who presented updates on a variety of VTrans projects on May 22, said his office gave him a rough estimate of 2018 for anticipated construction of a park and ride south of Interstate 89, one of two park and rides long planned in Williston.

Selectboard members expressed frustration that a Williston commuter lot seemed to be forever on the horizon, while the state recently announced plans to expand the Richmond park and ride.

“To me, it doesn’t make sense that we haven’t a long time ago had a park and ride in Williston,” Ingram said. “It’s long overdue. 2018, to me, that just sounds unacceptable.”

Maine-based developer Raymond Ramsey, who owns the lot under consideration for the park and ride immediately south of Interstate 89, came before the Development Review Board in the winter with a conceptual plan to subdivide the property to accommodate a hotel, gas station and park and ride.

“It’s one of the things I feel like we’re kind of failing our citizens on,” Ingram said. “I really feel strongly about it. It would alleviate a lot of the pressure on the Richmond park and ride, and do all the things we say we want to do—encourage carpooling, encourage less fossil fuel use.”

VTrans Project Manager Wayne Davis, who was not present on May 22, told the Observer on Tuesday that VTrans is still committed to building the park and ride.

“We’re still trying to move forward,” he said. “It’s a built-up, busy area. It hasn’t been an easy road and I don’t really see where it’s going to be easy from here on out, either.”

He also said that 2018, while five years away, is a reasonable estimate—and that it’s always possible the project could move more quickly.

“2018 seems like a long way out, but when you stop to think about everything we have to go through, it’s not really as long as you might think,” he said.

Once Ramsey and the town finalize a subdivision, VTrans can begin designing the park and ride, Davis said. The plan would still need to go through Act 250 permitting, which can sometimes take a year.

“I wouldn’t say that we’re out of the woods until we have it built,” Davis said.

At the retreat, other Selectboard members also voiced their frustration with the delay.

“I realize this is VTrans dollars, it’s not town dollars and I’m cognizant of that,” Selectboard Member Jeff Fehrs said. “I’ve been on the Selectboard for…15 years and this has been before us for pretty much most of that time.”

“This is about as environmentally responsible a project as there is,” Board Member Jay Michaud said. “There’s no doubt that the day after you build this thing it’s going to be full.”

Board members were also irritated that the various agencies involved in transportation projects did not seem to communicate with each other regarding their needs and timelines.

Chittenden County Transport Authority representative Meredith Birkett said that CCTA would be unlikely to add a Williston stop to its popular LINK Express line running from Burlington to Montpelier, with stops in Richmond and Waterbury, should a park and ride south of the interstate be built—surprising, since the state pushed for a park and ride in that location specifically to accommodate easy bus access.

“The link is functioning incredibly well right now … we’re very hesitant to add any stop to the link,” Birkett said. “Our perspective is the most need right now is for a park and ride somewhere in Taft Corner area or a little bit outside.”

Birkett said the option wouldn’t be taken off the table, and CCTA officials speculated that they could see the potential for two LINK lines, one stopping in Williston and one in Richmond.

“Sounds like haven’t talked to each other, that’s where going to be up to us,” Michaud said. “I get that disconnect from all of them…we’re going to have to facilitate that.”

Toward the end of the retreat, the board created an action item to work with Vtrans to prioritize the park and ride and coordinate with CCTA and regional planning groups by reaching out to those with decision-making capacities.

“Nobody’s taking complete ownership, nobody’s really driving the train,” Chris Roy said.

TRANSPORTATION IMPROVEMENTS

As with the park and ride, the board left the retreat feeling that it would have to push for Williston’s interests as alternatives to the scrapped Circumferential Highway move forward.

Other Circ communities like Essex and Colchester have projects in the construction phase, while Williston’s are being studied.

“We’re kind of the ones left twisting in the wind, because our stuff is still in the studying phase,” Roy said. “Everyone else has their double crossover diamonds and their crescent connectors and we’re just studying stuff.”

Roy said it might take some pressure to make sure that Williston’s projects move forward. Board members agreed that they should take steps to continue meetings of the Circ Alternatives Task Force, a group of representatives from the four Circ communities.

“It’s up to the locals to lead on this,” Fehrs said.

During the retreat, the board heard updates from the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission about four Williston Circ alternative studies it is managing, most of which are scheduled to be wrapped up toward the end of the year.

The first is a study to improve pedestrian and bike travel, as well as public transportation, on Route 2 between Taft Corners and Williston Village. A local concerns meeting regarding the corridor is set for June 18, hosted by the Williston Planning Commission.

“This particular project or corridor has been high on the town’s wish list for a long time,” Belliveau said. “That it’s gotten elevated coming out of the (Williston-Essex Network Transportation Study) I think is a positive thing… It is a big gaping hole in the system and it’s been a priority for the town for a long time.”

The second study will evaluate traffic congestion at the Vermont 117 and North Williston Road intersection and North Williston Road flooding issues. Three public meetings, which CCRPC representatives said would likely be held in Essex, are planned for the summer.

Fehrs said he was frustrated that North Williston Road—which the town had hoped to keep a local road with the Circ highway—was being asked to take on the role of a major connector road. He added that residents want slow speeds through their village—not ideal for a connector road.

“It’s almost like we’re asking a pickup truck to do a dump truck’s work,” Fehrs said. “It can do it, but it’s not the right tool.”

A study is also underway for improvements to the intersection of Vermont 2A, Industrial Avenue and Mountain View Road. A local concerns meeting will be scheduled for early summer, where residents can share their concerns and issues with the area. Potential solutions will be presented at a public meeting in the fall.

“It does seem to me, given that there’s going to be no Circ Highway, that (2A) is going to have to increase in width, whether we do it now or do it later,” Fehrs said.

Ingram noted that Selectboard members frequently hear from residents in that area who cannot get out of their houses, a worsening problem.

The final scoping study underway is for a reconfiguration of Exit 12 off I-89. CCRPC is set to hold a public meeting on June 4 at 7 p.m. in the Town Hall, where residents can share their ideas to improve congestion, safety, bike and pedestrian access and travel in general at Exit 12 and Vermont 2A.

“I think overall it’s just keeping all the balls juggled and coordinating everything going on…especially in the fall when all these things are going to come to us,” Ingram said. “Just making sure everything keeps moving and gets coordinated.”

The Selectboard’s final action item, added at the end of the retreat, read “Be optimistic!”

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