Board customizes Circ Highway plan

Town will lobby for hybrid of existing options

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Mixing and matching existing options, the Williston Selectboard on Monday crafted a homemade alternative to the Circumferential Highway.

The board was trying to beat a Nov. 8 deadline, which has since been extended to Nov. 21, for comment on the draft Environmental Impact Statement, an exhaustive analysis of highway building options. The input will be considered when state and federal officials pick a final design next year.

Selectboard members listened to public comment and debated options for about an hour. In the end, it combined some of the 11 alternatives listed in the EIS.

“I hate to suggest your hands are tied,” said Town Planner Lee Nellis as the board wondered if it must choose from among the existing alternatives.

Nellis said the board should do what is best for Williston “even if it means going outside the box and mashing alternatives together.”

The highway envisioned by the board would be a cross between the originally planned divided highway and a slower-speed parkway. It would follow the originally planned Circ route between Interstate 89 and Vermont 117 in Essex.

The board wants to include intersections at U.S. 2 and Redmond Road, each with an underpass or overpass. Though those features are frequently seen on divided highways, the board said it would prefer a parkway-style road to reduce noise.

The board’s hybrid approach departs from the 11 alternatives listed in the draft EIS released this summer. The alternatives fall 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 Circ as originally proposed more than 20 years ago called for a limited-access highway from I-89 in Williston to Vermont 127 in Colchester. To date, only the portion through Essex has been constructed.

Ground was broken on the Williston segment 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.

The original Circ design is numbered 16a in the EIS study. Options 16b and 16c are variations on that design, with 16b featuring interchanges on U.S. 2 and Redmond Road and 16c having an exit only at Mountain View Road.

At a meeting last month, the Selectboard seemed to support option 17, a parkway running along the same route but having at-grade intersections instead of ramps and a lower speed limit. But after public comment, considerable debate and a failed motion on Monday, the board changed course.

Most of the discussion focused on speed, noise and intersections.

Williston resident Charlie Dykes urged the board to choose an option that would not add congestion. He said the town already has too many stoplights and it didn’t make sense to build another slow-moving road.

“I guess I just have the traffic light blues,” he said, later adding, “In order to succeed with this, it has to change things, it has to move people around.”

George Gerecke, Williston’s representative on the Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization, said it was important to give motorists just passing through Williston a “straight shot” without having to stop at intersections. He said the original Circ design or one of its variations would best accomplish that goal.

But Nellis said the parkway would produce far less noise for nearby homeowners. He said EIS data show that vehicles going 65 mph on a divided highway make far more noise than those going 45 mph on a parkway.

Agency of Transportation spokesman John Zicconi said in an interview Tuesday that those speeds are incorrect. He said the original Circ alternative and its variations would be designed for 50 mph, the parkway for about 40 mph. Those speed limits could be altered upon the request of local officials.

Planning Commission member Kevin Batson said the commission recommended the parkway option because it best reduces traffic on Vermont 2A and North Williston Road.

He also said an intersection at U.S. 2 would allow both local and through traffic to easily access the new thoroughfare and bypass 2A and North Williston Road.

Otherwise, “traffic would be all focused in the wrong direction,” he said. “Rather than easing the congestion points, you’d be making them worse.”

But Selectboard member Judy Sassorossi said residents she’s heard from don’t want a Circ exit at U.S. 2. The town had long opposed such an exit amid fears that it would funnel traffic into the village.

She seconded a motion by board member Andy Mikell to support option 16b. But after some additional debate, they, along with all the other board members, rejected the motion.

Then board members Ted Kenney and Jeff Fehrs separately suggested the town support options 16a, 16b, 16c or 17 and proposed modifications to those designs.

The board directed Town Manager Rick McGuire to draft a letter that details Williston’s highway design preferences while emphasizing that the town opposes any alternative involving improvements on Vermont 2A. The letter will also oppose a no-build option and promise changes to Williston’s Comprehensive Plan, which currently calls for construction of the Circ as originally designed.

State and federal transportation officials are scheduled to select one of the alternatives by next summer.

Zicconi said proposals that mix multiple alternatives are “perfectly legitimate.” But he said officials must be able to determine how well custom-made alternatives work based on data in the existing EIS.

“If an option takes us in a direction where we don’t know what the impacts will be or they haven’t been studied, it puts us in a more precarious spot,” he said.