Boulevard chosen for Circ (12/23/09)

Williston segment: Four lanes, 40 mph speed limit

Dec. 23, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Transportation officials have picked a lower-speed, less noisy alternative for the Circumferential Highway in Williston.

Called the “Circ A/B Boulevard,” the design differs markedly from the originally proposed project, a four-lane, limited-access highway from Interstate 89 in Williston to Vermont 117 in Essex Junction. It would have featured interchanges, a broad, grassy medium and a 50 mph speed limit.

The new plan is for a four-lane boulevard divided by a raised concrete median. The road would have at-grade, signalized intersections and a 40 mph speed limit.

The boulevard, one of numerous options outlined in the draft Environmental Impact Statement released more than two years ago, was chosen mainly to reduce the impact on wetlands, said Ken Robie, project manager with the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers have expressed concerns about the Circ’s effect on environmentally sensitive areas, particular the forested wetland north of Mountain View Road.

The boulevard alternative directly impacts 22 acres of wetland, about 12 acres less than the original design. Less wetland is affected because of the boulevard’s smaller footprint and because the highway alignment has been shifted eastward, Robie said.

The boulevard’s lower speeds will create less noise, a concern for homeowners in the nearby Brennan Woods and South Ridge subdivisions.

“The faster you go, the more noise you make,” Robie said.

The option is similar to what the Williston Selectboard had sought, although it wanted interchanges at U.S. 2 and Mountain View Road rather than signalized intersections. Robie said interchanges would have had a greater impact on wetlands and been more costly.

The Circumferential Highway as first proposed decades ago was a 16-mile suburban bypass running from Williston to Colchester. Only the middle portion in Essex has been constructed.

Work was set to begin on the Williston segment in 2004. But environmentalists sued to stop construction, arguing that an environmental study completed in the 1980s was out of date. A federal judge’s ruling forced the state to complete a new Environmental Impact Statement that looked at dozens of alternatives. Among the options considered was a plan to widen Vermont 2A rather than build a new highway.

Sandra Levine, senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, offered muted praise for the boulevard alternative.

“I would say we’re pleased the transportation agencies have abandoned the original design for the Circumferential Highway,” she said. “It’s still unclear that an entirely new road is justified.”

Environmental groups have long argued that the Circ would encourage sprawl and fail to speed traffic. Levine noted that the state’s own study shows that the new highway will reduce travel time between Williston and Essex by an average of just 4 minutes.

Environmental groups say unlike the A/B route, the wetland impact of widening Vermont 2A would be negligible. But state and federal highway officials argue that it is impractical — or downright impossible — to widen 2A.

The project would involve acquiring pieces of dozens of properties and overcoming the objections of the town of Williston and the village of Essex Junction. The opposition in Essex Junction is particularly problematic because the village controls its stretch of 2A. It would take an act of the state Legislature to trump the village’s opposition, which transportation officials think is unlikely.

Meanwhile, it is unclear if the latest alternative will be accepted by the Army Corps of Engineers or environmental groups.

The Army Corps is still considering whether the Circ meets federal Clean Water Act standards, under which highways can be permitted only when they are the “least environmentally damaging practical alternative.” Officials at the Army Corp’s office in Essex did not immediately return a telephone message.

State and federal transportation officials have said they anticipate further appeals by environmental groups that could again delay construction — even if the Circ wins all required permits. Levine was noncommittal about whether the latest design would pass muster with the Conservation Law Foundation. She said she first wants to see the rationale for choosing the boulevard over other designs.

It will be at least two years before any asphalt is laid on the Williston segment of the Circ, Robie said. Even if federal agencies approve the project, new or amended state and local permits will be needed. Then engineering work and detailed plans have to be completed.

The choice of a preferred alternative isn’t even the last word from state and federal highway officials. A final Environmental Impact Statement is expected early in 2010 spelling out the rationale for choosing a boulevard, Robie said. Then the Army Corps must approve the project before the Federal Highway Administration can issue a record of decision that clears the way for federal funding.

“There’s been no official decision yet,” Robie said. “Everything is still up in the air as far as final approvals.”