Town could change course on Circ

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Steering longtime town policy in a different direction, the Williston Planning Commission recently endorsed an alternative to the Circumferential Highway.

The commission last week recommended the town support Alternative 17, one of several options still on the table as part of an Environmental Impact Statement process being conducted by state and federal transportation officials.

The alternative calls for a four-lane, boulevard-style road running from Interstate 89 in Williston to Vermont 289 in Essex. It would include intersections at U.S. 2 and Mountain View Road.

Though the alternative runs along the Circ’s originally-planned route, it differs significantly from the initial design of a divided highway. The option eliminates on-ramps and overpasses at U.S. 2 and Mountain View Road, opting instead for signalized intersections and a landscaped median.

In short, the option is a parkway instead of a highway. Planning Commission members said in a statement it would be a better way to bypass congested Vermont 2A, the main reason for building the Circ.

“The Planning Commission’s review of the alternatives studied in the (Environmental Impact Statement) led to an agreement that a landscaped boulevard or parkway will have fewer adverse impacts and be more consistent with Williston’s evolving character than a higher speed, limited access highway,” the statement said.

The Williston Selectboard is scheduled to review the recommendation on Monday. The board may or may not decide to adopt the resolution as the town’s official policy and forward it to be included in the ongoing EIS process.

The proposed change of course – most town officials, past and present, have supported the original Circ – comes as the public comment phase of the EIS draws to a close. The process, initiated after a federal judge ruled that the previous study was outdated, has whittled dozens of alternatives down to 11, including a no-build option.

Planning Commission Chairman David Yandell said the commission felt obligated to take a “clear, firm position” about which option was best for Williston. As an advisory body, he said the commission was the right group to digest the massive draft Environmental Impact Statement, which runs thousands of pages, and determine if there was a better alternative to the Circumferential Highway.

The boulevard option was deemed best because it would permit slower speeds than the Circ, thereby producing less noise and disruption for nearby neighborhoods like South Ridge and Brennan Woods, Yandell said.

He also noted that the alternative improves traffic flow throughout the area and has a smaller impact on nearby wetlands.

The alternatives still being considered can be grouped into three broad categories: a limited-access highway or a boulevard along the originally-planned Circ route; widening Vermont 2A to three or four lanes through Williston and Essex and replacing some intersections with roundabouts; or a hybrid that uses parts of each approach.

The draft EIS analyzes the impact of the road-building alternatives, looking at the effect each has on traffic, the environment and the economy.

In its written statement, the commission strongly opposed the 2A alternatives. Yandell said they would be a “disaster” for people living along the road.

“These alternatives will result in deteriorating neighborhood conditions along Route 2A while providing only small improvements in regional mobility and minimal relief from increasing traffic volumes on North Williston and other town roads that are now compelled to provide regional mobility,” the statement said.

The recommendation is not unconditional. The commission wants Alternative 17 to include an overpass for the town’s recreation path and at-grade crossings for bicycles and pedestrians at U.S. 2 and Mountain View Road. The commission also said access should be limited to those two intersections, with the possibility of a third connection to the proposed regional landfill on Redmond Road.

The recommendation comes long after other area towns weighed in on their preferences. Since the EIS process started, Essex, Essex Junction and Colchester have urged transportation officials to build the Circ as originally planned.

Earlier this year, the town of Essex adopted a resolution opposing the 2A alternatives while reserving judgment on the other options, said Jeff Carr, chairman of the Essex Selectboard.

Though Williston’s Comprehensive Plan has long stated support for the original Circ design, the Selectboard has resisted picking one option since the EIS process started. Board members have said they wanted to wait until the study was completed.

Vermont Agency of Transportation spokesman John Zicconi said the most important consideration is which option best improves traffic flow and safety.

But conformance with existing town plans will be a factor when the Federal Highway Administration makes the final decision on which alternatives to build, he said. Municipal resolutions backed by consistent statements in town plans will receive serious consideration.

“A formal resolution related to a town plan would weigh heavier than an individual comment,” Zicconi said.

The Williston Planning Commission’s recommended resolution is accompanied by proposed changes to the Comprehensive Plan intended to make it consistent with the new position.

First proposed more than 30 years ago, the Circ as originally designed would be a 16-mile highway running from Interstate 89 in Williston to Vermont 127 in Colchester. Only the Essex segment has been completed.

Ground was broken on the Williston stretch in 2004. But construction was halted when a federal judge ruled the Circ could not proceed until a new EIS was completed.

Since then, numerous public hearings have been held and the list of options narrowed down to the current alternatives.