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EPA critical of Circ Highway plans

Dec. 2, 2010

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

The latest chapter in the long-running Circumferential Highway saga occurred last week when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended against constructing the road.

The EPA’s regional manager, H. Curtis Spalding, wrote a letter to the New England commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stating the Corps should revisit current Circ plans due to the effects on Williston’s wetlands. While the EPA’s stance won’t stop the project, it likely will stall progress as state planners alter the design of the Circ.

For Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire, the latest development is just another frustration in a long line of delays.

“Nothing surprises me at this point when it comes to the Circ Highway,” McGuire said.

The project, when completed, will run from Colchester to Williston and provide a 16-mile beltway within Chittenden County. The only completed stretch is through Essex, with the 4-mile Williston section stuck in ever-evolving planning stages.

In his letter, Spalding said the project’s impacts “would cause or contribute to significant degradation” of area waters. As part of the national permit process for the Circ — as required by the federal Clean Water Act — the Army Corps of Engineers must get EPA project approval in the areas of wetlands and impaired waterways. The Corps endorsed changes to the Circ’s design in July, but is awaiting opinions from different federal agencies before giving official approval.

Construction on the Circ can only begin once the Corps completes the federal review process, but that also might be delayed if any people or organizations contest the project in court.

In recent years, the Vermont Agency of Transportation altered the design of the Circ from a limited access road, much like Interstate 89, to a boulevard-type plan. The state agency also purchased property in Williston in an effort to alleviate any effects on wetlands.

A spokesman for the Vermont Agency of Transportation said he expected the EPA to be critical of the Circ. John Zicconi, the director of planning, outreach and community affairs for VTrans, said the EPA remains consistent in its criticism of the project.

According to Spalding’s letter, VTrans needs to continue working on its mitigation plans.

“Although we applaud VTrans’ sincere efforts to develop a robust compensatory mitigation plan, we do not believe the plan is sufficient to reduce the impacts below the level of significant degradation,” he wrote, adding that VTrans still needs to prove there will be minimal impacts to the Allen Brook and its tributaries.

Zicconi said the EPA’s letter won’t make VTrans completely alter the boulevard plans for the highway, but it will force the agency to tweak a few areas to earn the backing of the EPA in future reviews.

“We have to put a little more meat on the bones during the mitigation process,” Zicconi said. “This is when we get down to the nitty gritty.”

One alternative the EPA suggests is to reevaluate a possible widening of Vermont 2A, which could create less of an impact on the environment. Circ opponents have long said that altering Vermont 2A would accomplish the state’s goals of easing traffic congestion in the county.

The Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental group with offices in Montpelier, said Spalding’s letter proves that building the Circ is an unnecessary venture that would destroy land and needlessly cost millions of taxpayer dollars.

“This is a strong indictment by the EPA,” foundation spokeswoman Sandra Levine said. “It’s fairly unusual for them to weigh in as strongly as they have.”

State and town officials don’t see widening Vermont 2A as a viable option. McGuire said the town has never supported that proposal, adding it would do nothing to ease Williston’s traffic woes. With Vermont 2A and North Williston Road providing the town’s only Winooski River crossings, the highway would disperse traffic patterns.

“We need another way across the river and this road will provide that way,” McGuire said. “Our traffic issues aren’t going to go away and they’ll probably get worse.”