Consultant rolls out plan to reduce backups on I-89 ramp

By Isaac Olson

A consultant contracted by the state has conjured up a remedy for traffic backups on the southbound exit to Interstate 89 in Williston.

Vehicles occasionally fill the ramp and spill out onto the traveled portion of I-89, creating a potentially serious traffic hazard. There is also growing congestion along Vermont Route 2A near the exit 12 interchange.

Last week, state transportation officials and the consultant, Williston-based Dubois & King Inc., revealed plans to deal with the problem. The plans include widening the southbound off-ramp and coordinating traffic signals to improve flow along Route 2A.

The estimated $500,000 project, if approved by the Vermont Agency of Transportation, could completed as soon as 2006, according to Evan Detrick, a manager with Dubois & King. Traffic volume is growing by about a 0.5 percent a year, and the plan will support that rate of growth until 2026.

The plan, presented during a Nov. 10 public meeting at Williston Town Hall attended by about 25 community members, must still clear some hurdles before being implemented. But Detrick said he is confident that the Agency of Transportation will approve the plan and complete the remaining planning, permitting and construction tasks. The firm was contracted to study the area and recommend a solution.

Williston Town Manager Richard McGuire said there is “a mixture of feelings” on the proposal. It would have been better, he said, if the problem was addressed earlier and the project completed sooner but, he said the planning process is moving rapidly by state standards.

Williston resident William Fellinger, who lives up the hill from exit 12, said in an interview that he can see the congestion from his front yard. He said building more roads will not solve the problem and will instead create more congestion. If roads are built, he said, the work should be done “very judiciously” with careful planning for the future.

Speaking last week’s meeting, Bob Chamberlain, a traffic consultant with subcontractor Resource System Group, described the two-lane off-ramp as inadequate to support the traffic flow during peak afternoon hours. He said widening the ramp and installing a second left-turn lane would drastically increase the ramp’s capacity. Orchestrating that with signal timing would prevent cars from being backed up onto I-89, he said.

Chamberlain said the new signal cycle could cause traffic along side streets to be backed up even more than they are now. Marshall Avenue, he said, could be bumper to bumper for more than 1,000 feet during peak congestion.

“You have to pick your poison,” Chamberlain said. “We’re not magicians. It’s clear that not everybody is a winner in this.”

McGuire said he is concerned about having traffic backed up even more on the side streets, particularly Marshall Avenue. But as the state makes the exit safer, McGuire said the town of Williston will try to improve the infrastructure around the busy retail area.

McGuire said town officials are considering ideas ranging from connecting Route 2A directly to Wal-Mart to changing the lane system coming out of Maple Tree Place. He said the town will continue to study potential traffic flow improvements over the next few years.

But McGuire noted that the safety issue on Interstate 89 outweighs increased wait time for motorists.

“The bottom line is we do have a serious safety concern that has to be addressed,” McGuire said. “And the sooner the better.”

The plans revealed last week to deal with the off-ramp congestion, however, are more a broad outline than precise blueprints, Detrick said. He said state transportation officials still have to determine if the design is financially and environmentally feasible. He said the review process could be completed as early as January. State officials will then attempt to find funding, finalize designs and obtain permits before widening the ramp.

Fellinger asserted that under the plan motorists traveling on Route 2A willl not see the predicted relief. With twice as many cars able to turn left off the ramp as before, he said, there isn’t enough space for them on Route 2A.

It’s simple math, he explained. For example, he said if Route 2A can only accommodate 100 cars an hour and the ramp releases 120, there will be 20 cars stuck in traffic.

Chamberlain said that the segment of the Circumferential Highway planned for Williston that will terminate at the Interstate will not greatly affect Route 2A. Fellinger maintains that with the Circ and overall growth, the area is going to become “saturated” with traffic. A better solution, he said, is to put more emphasis on car-pooling and public transportation to lessen the amount of cars on the road.

“Putting two people in a car would be useful,” he said. “One person per Hummer just doesn’t cut it.”

It would have been more efficient to plan for heavy traffic back when developers started constructing large retail stores, Fellinger said. He questioned why developers didn’t better prepare for traffic. Now, he said, there isn’t enough open land left to provide the adequate roads needed to handle the amount of vehicles.

Detrick said it is most important to get the cars off the interstate. He said the traffic flow “will greatly improve” with the proposal.

At last week’s meeting, Williston resident Wolfgang Mieder said that icy roads combined with low visibility create a situation in which a “tremendous” pileup could occur. He asked that the state install flashing lights on Interstate 89 to warn motorists that cars may be backed up at exit 12. He said that would provide a temporary fix until a more extensive solution is completed.

Andrew Bassette of Richmond suggested officials install a second Williston off-ramp to give shoppers, which make up the majority of motorists, a chance to exit sooner. Having an exit at South Brownell Road, for example, would lessen the amount of cars getting off at exit 12, he said.