Circ study completes first step

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Each day, motorists fume while traffic backs up along Vermont Route 2A. Behind the impatient faces, some drivers are likely thinking: When are they going to fix this mess?

Motorists, along with a host of organizations and government officials, have over the past few months expressed their views on how to solve the growing congestion along the Route 2A corridor, which stretches from Interstate 89 in Williston to the Five Corners in Essex Junction. The comments are part of the court-mandated Environmental Impact Statement process that will consider alternatives to building the long-delayed Circumferential Highway, which was intended to reduce congestion on 2A and other area thoroughfares.

The first step of that process, called “scoping,” was recently completed. The state Agency of Transportation released a report last week detailing the comments gathered from hundreds of individuals and numerous organizations during interviews and public forums.

Those comments show most people think there is a traffic problem. But there appears to be no consensus about how to fix it.

Many people — particularly Williston residents — think the state should immediately get on with building the Circ. Others believe the Circ is only part of the solution, and suggest combining the project with other measures, such as expanded public transportation and park-and-ride facilities. Still others support an alternative plan that envisions a new limited access “ Circ Street” and/or a series of roundabouts along Route 2A.

The lack of consensus is neither surprising nor alarming, say federal and state transportation officials. They note that the first step in the process is designed to gather a wide variety of public opinion.

“The scoping document does not provide answers about what should be done, nor is it intended to,” said state Agency of Transportation spokesman Ian Grossman. He said the scoping study will instead be used to form a long list of potential alternatives.

As originally planned, the Circumferential Highway would have carved a 16-mile arc from Interstate 89 in Williston to Vermont Route 127 in Colchester. Road crews had started preliminary work last year on the segment linking Williston to the existing portion of the Circ in Essex. But then U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions, ruling on an appeal filed by environmental groups, halted the work. He ruled that the environmental impact of the project had not been sufficiently researched.

As it stands now, there are two proposals. The first is for the Circ, which was first proposed decades ago. The second is a two-part proposal put forward by environmental groups.

The Vermont Smart Growth Collaborative suggested constructing a “ Circ Street” that would run along a portion of the proposed route of the Circ but would not be a divided highway. The group also proposed replacing existing traffic lights at major intersections along Route 2A with roundabouts.

Much of the public comment during the EIS process so far has revolved around support or opposition to those proposals.

“The discussion has focused on these two proposals, probably because it is easier for the public to wrap their heads around,” said Grossman. But he emphasized that everything — including other yet-to-be proposed ideas or perhaps doing nothing at all — is still on the table.

The scoping process has included public meetings, interviews and written comments. Dozens of municipal officials, business representatives and members of various other organizations were interviewed. Roughly 175 people attended three public forums held in March. About 250 people submitted written comments through the EIS project’s Web site.

A summary of comments posted on the Web site notes that there was broad agreement that traffic was frequently congested on Routes 2A and Route 15, particularly at Taft Corners in Williston and the Five Corners in Essex. Most people felt that improvements were needed.

But no clear consensus emerged about what should be done about the problem. Some thought more public transportation would help solve congestion; others felt it would have a minimal effect on traffic. Some said improvements to existing roads — such as better-timed traffic lights — would reduce traffic; others said the only solution was to build a new road.

Still others mentioned environmental concerns. But again, there was disagreement. Some thought building the Circ would improve air quality by reducing the time motorists spend idling in traffic; others felt that building the Circ would affect wildlife habitat. Opinion was evenly divided on whether or not to build the Circ.

The wealth of comments will produce a lengthy list of possibilities, said Jim Purdy of The Louis Berger Group, the consulting company hired to conduct the EIS process.

“If you multiply all the permutations, you end up with quite a large number of possibilities,” Purdy said.

Officials are now compiling a long list of alternatives. After more public input, that list will be narrowed down this summer to a shorter list of perhaps a half-dozen options, Purdy said.

Next, a draft Environmental Impact Statement will produced and more public comment will be sought. Then the final EIS will be produced and a final option will be selected.

Construction of any road in Williston — whether it is the Circ or another project — is a long way off. Officials say they have a goal of finishing the EIS by summer 2006. After that, the “most optimistic” estimate has road construction starting in spring 2007, Grossman said.