Moving forward without the Circ

By Brian Searles
Over the past months, there have been many attempts to link the Circumferential Highway project in Chittenden County to the global business decisions of IBM that may affect the Essex Junction plant. That the Circ is being used for political posturing is not surprising or new. What is surprising is the lack of facts in the narrative that is being put forward. The Circ was a dinosaur of a project that languished for more than 30 years. In the meantime, cost estimates had ballooned, nearly doubling to $200 million. And in the end every stakeholder, including IBM, agreed it was best to move in another direction with a realistic plan that addresses Chittenden County’s transportation concerns for nearly half the cost.
When Governor Shumlin took office in 2011, no construction had taken place on the Circ project in nearly 18 years. Yet between 1993, when the 4-mile segment in Essex was opened, and 2011, nearly $32 million was spent on the Circ. Significantly, during that time, transportation investments changed direction. Urban ring roads fell out of favor nationwide, new capacity projects became limited, average daily traffic fell, new technology in intersection control and demand management emerged. A sharper understanding of environmental concerns was shared by all, and federal dollars became more constrained. A bloated $200 million investment in outdated technology was simply not in the cards.
As a result, the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission led a task force at the governor’s request that included all of the Circ stakeholders. The group met for 30 months and reexamined the problems that needed to be fixed and used all of the new available tools to create an array of projects designed to have a much more positive impact on traffic issues than the Circ ever promised. The task force included membership of state and federal transportation partners, the Circ towns, GBIC, the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Vermont Natural Resources Council, IBM and others.
In the end, the Task Force voted unanimously to approve 34 projects with an estimated cost of about $100 million, half the cost of the Circ. Twelve are short-term (3-5 year horizon) projects such as the Crescent Connector in Essex Junction and Exit 16 improvements in Colchester; nineteen medium-term (5-10 years) such as a grid street system near Exit 12 of I-89 in Williston and Severance Corners improvements in Colchester; and three are longer-term projects (more than 10 years) that include major work on Exit 12 and improvements to Redmond Road and Mountain View Road, both in Williston.
In addition to costing half as much, these projects differ from the Circ in another important way: They will actually be completed. The 34 projects have all been approved by the Vermont Legislature and are part of the state’s capital program. Several even received funding in the 2015 budget. Those are the facts. And that’s progress of which Vermont and Vermonters should be proud.

Brian Searles is the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation.