Williston bypassed for commuter parking (10/22/09)

State rejects funding for Town Hall lot

Oct. 22, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Williston’s quest for commuter parking has stalled again, with the state rejecting funding for a lot at Town Hall and choosing instead less expensive projects in rural areas.

Earlier this year the town applied for a grant to construct a 20-space park-and-ride that would expand the existing lot behind Town Hall. But last week, town officials learned that the $150,000 project, vying for funding with 16 other proposals, failed to make the cut.

Coincidentally, the Selectboard on Monday was scheduled to be briefed by Wayne Davis, a Vermont Agency of Transportation employee who helps administer the grant program. As planned, he updated the board on two other long-planned park-and-ride projects in Williston.

But he also got grilled about the grant by board members already displeased with the slow progress on the other facilities. They wondered why the town and its thousands of commuters were passed over while places as small as the Northeast Kingdom hamlet of Norton, population just over 200, received money.

“I think it is important to allow people to combine and travel together in some of the more rural areas of the state,” board member Chris Roy said. “But there is also a need to deal with the more congested areas of the state.”

Other towns receiving grants besides Norton were Pawlet, Readsboro, Rockingham, South Hero, Starksboro, Warren, Washington, West Haven and Westminster.

Board member Judy Sassorossi asked if placing park-and-rides in sparsely populated regions actually encourages sprawl.

“In a way,” Davis said. “But in a way, that’s there now, and what we’re doing is reducing some of the vehicle miles traveled.”

The state received grant applications seeking close to $800,000 in funding. But state lawmakers appropriated only $250,000 this year for the Municipal Park-and-Ride Grant Program.

The Agency of Transportation used a point system to choose which projects would be funded. Factors considered included cost, location and accessibility to public transit.

The Williston project’s price tag was one reason it was rejected, Davis told the Selectboard, despite the fact that the town trimmed its original funding request by $50,000 at the state’s urging. He said there was an effort to stretch the money to pay for as many park-and-rides as possible.

Another factor working against Williston was the lack of bus service in the village, which Davis said was a key consideration.

Town Manager Rick McGuire pointed out an irony: The same day he learned the grant was rejected, he was informed that the Chittenden County Transportation Authority received federal funding for a new bus route that may terminate at Williston Town Hall.

McGuire asked if the Champlain Valley Union High School bus that now stops in the lot was considered in the grant decision. Davis said it was not.

Sassorossi said that was a mistake.

“If you start when you are 16 to use park-and-rides and public transit, it becomes a life habit,” she said.

Board members also asked sometimes pointed questions about the other park-and-rides, one planned for Vermont 2A just south of Interstate 89 and another facility, also on 2A nearer to Taft Corners.

More progress has been made on the lot south of the interstate, Davis said, with conceptual plans completed and negotiations ongoing with two property owners.

The state continues to search for a site for the other park-and-ride, which Davis said could be located somewhere in or around Taft Corners Park, the commercial development that includes Wal-Mart and The Home Depot.

Sassorossi said she preferred the site closer to Taft Corners, asserting the other location was isolated and could pose safety problems for women waiting in the dark for their rides to arrive.

“It’s intimidating and it’s unsafe,” she said, noting that assaults on women are “crimes of opportunities.”

Roy worried that once the facility south of the interstate is built, there would be no incentive for the state to construct the other park-and-ride. Davis responded that the I-89 site was not isolated because the lot would be within sight distance of the highway. And he said both park-and-rides are slated to be funded regardless of which is built first.

Davis said Williston might have better luck in 2010 if it reapplies for the Town Hall park-and-ride grant.

“I encourage you to put in an application next year and hopefully we’ll get better funding,” he said.