Circ alternative clears hurdle

Federal approval leads Williston planners to explore impact

By Adam White
Observer staff

The Circumferential Highway through Williston didn’t hit a dead end after all – it is apparently just taking a detour.

This section of U.S. 2 in Williston – located between the Williston Fire Department and the village – was left abandoned when construction of the Circumferential Highway stalled. The newly-approved plan calls for at-grade signaled crossings here and at Mountain View Rd. (Observer photo by Steven Frank)

Williston town planner Ken Belliveau gave a detailed presentation to the Planning Commission on Tuesday outlining the specifics of “Build Alternative 17,” a version of the Circ plan that the Federal Highway Administration has authorized the Vermont Agency of Transportation to proceed with developing. The reworked version of the highway project is designed to connect Interstate 89 in Williston with Vermont 117 and 289 in Essex.

The alternative plan – also referred to as “Circ A/B Boulevard” – entails construction of an initial portion of highway extending north from I-89 and terminating at Mountain View Road in Williston. This “A” portion of the Circ would include at-grade, signaled crossings at U.S. 2 and Mountain View Rd., and comprise two travel lanes in each direction separated by a 16-foot median.

The “B” section of the project – which would continue north from Mountain View Rd., cross a newly-constructed bridge over the Winooski River and connect with the existing southerly portion of VT 289 – would reportedly be completed as a subsequent project in the future.

“The Circ A/B Boulevard offers the best balance of addressing the congestion, safety and mobility needs of the area, while minimizing environmental and community impacts,” stated a release on a Vermont Agency of Transportation web page dedicated to the project.

Belliveau’s presentation outlining the specifics of Alternative 17 to the Planning Commission included the expression of concern about how it would impact the town of Williston.

Belliveau warned that the initial completion of just the A Boulevard under the proposed phasing schedule could pose problems in terms of local traffic, particularly in the vicinity of Mountain View Rd. He pointed out that well-documented concerns already exist about the intersection of Mountain View and North Williston roads, and the Circ could exacerbate that situation through a spike in transient traffic.

“In my opinion, there’s the risk … (that) if you have this new interchange with 89, and it terminates on local roads, do those roads now become attractors (for traffic)?” Belliveau said.

“We could see a net increase of traffic in Williston … of people just passing through to get access to this roadway,” he added on Wednesday. “From the perspective of the town, that’s a concern.”

Many local residents have echoed that concern during the Circ’s planning process in letters and e-mails posted on its website,

“If the Circ comes through Williston, we will move out of town before the construction even begins,” wrote Sarah Francisco of Brennan Woods Drive. “While it would alleviate traffic problems as they are now, it would eventually add more traffic problems in the future.”

Planning Commission member Michael Alvanos questioned the prioritizing of the A Boulevard over the B, suggesting that flip-flopping the construction schedule might better serve the Circ’s intended purpose of alleviating traffic pressure on high-volume intersections such as the five corners one in Essex Junction.

Belliveau identified two factors as likely impacting that decision. The first is difficulty in securing the required Section 404 permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for issues pertaining to the approximately 560 acres of wetlands and wildlife habitat that would be affected by the project. These areas are more prevalent in the northern half of the proposed A/B Boulevard right-of-way.

Vermont Rep. Sue Minter, the state’s deputy secretary of transportation, acknowledged on Thursday that pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency has contributed to the Circ project’s current “stalemate.”

“That is something that we need to work out, before we end up going down a path pursuing something that we know will end up in court,” Minter said.

The second factor is the influence on the project from IBM, which already maintains its own bridge over the Winooski River at its facility entrance on VT 117.

“If you were paying attention during Governor Shumlin’s press conference (on May 20), he identified the regional Chamber of Commerce and IBM as who he had consulted prior to making his announcement,” Belliveau said. “Extrapolating from that, you would build A before B because it would create … a real improvement for (IBM’s) transportation options.”

Commission member Drew Nixon said that while he recognizes the A Boulevard’s potential value to IBM’s operations, but disagreed that it warranted the proposed construction schedule.

“Obviously, there’s value to the town of Williston to keep IBM here, and happy,” Nixon said. “But I think you have to build all of (the Circ), or none of it. I can’t see spending all that money on half a solution.”

A call for comment to IBM’s facilities department in Essex was not returned.

Build Alternative 17 would also impact operations of existing and potential future facilities of the Chittenden Solid Waste District on Redmond Rd. in Williston. Planning commission member Jake Mathon brought up prior comments by Selectboard member Chris Roy about how “the dump and the Circ were linked, and that seems to have been forgotten as dozens of years and a number of administrations have gone by.”

Belliveau said that the town’s planning department “would like to see the CSWD get direct access from the Circ,” and questioned whether it fits the vision of Williston’s Comprehensive Town Plan to “support one without the other.”

The Circ project appeared indefinitely stalled when Gov. Shumlin announced at a press conference in Williston that “the original plan is never going to be built.” Shumlin cited cost as a mitigating factor in that decision, and that issue is at least partially addressed by the delayed A/B phasing of the Boulevard plan.

The green light for that plan came after the FHWA published a Final Environmental Impact Statement following the required two public hearings on the issue last August. The FHWA then issued a “Record of Decision” on the process, which allows the Department of Transportation to proceed with final design, permitting, property acquisition and construction.

“By our issuance of a ROD for this project, we are herein granting location/design approval for the proposed action,” wrote FHWA Environmental Program Manager Ken Sikora in a letter to Vermont Secretary of Transportation Brian Searles. “You may proceed with the further development of the project.”

Circ project manager Ken Robie of the Vermont Agency of Transportation said on Thursday that while the FHWA’s Record of Decision “gives VTrans the authority to move forward with development,” the state has not committed to any action in regard to the plan.

“It allows us flexibility to build it as we can,” Robie said. “But it doesn’t require us to build it, or build it within any specific amount of time.”

Belliveau said that he has engaged in correspondence regarding the project with Searles and Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization executive director Michele Boomhower, but neither has revealed any definitive timetable for it.

“They are just going to build A for the time being,” Belliveau said. “They might build B in the future, but nobody knows when that would be. There is really no time frame for any of this.”