Officials choose original Circ route (Sept. 4, 2008)

Route 2A options deemed impractical

Sept. 4, 2008
By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Transportation officials announced last week that they have picked the Circumferential Highway’s original route over alternatives favored by environmental groups.
The Williston segment of the highway was supposed to run from Interstate 89 to Vermont 117. Construction had commenced on the stretch four years ago when a federal judge ruled that more information was needed on the project’s impact, effectively halting work until a new environmental study was completed.
State and federal highway officials have considered dozens of options and heard from hundreds of residents and groups as part of the study.
Last year, those options were narrowed down to three major alternatives: a limited-access highway or boulevard along the originally planned Circ route; widen Vermont 2A to three or four lanes through Williston and Essex, replacing some intersections with roundabouts; or a hybrid that uses parts of each approach.
Now the Vermont Agency of Transportation has announced that it and the Federal Highway Administration agreed on the highway’s route, if not the design.
“The Circ ‘AB’ alignment performs best,” said Vermont Transportation Secretary David Dill. “It best meets purpose and need, meaning it meets the objectives of the project, which is to reduce congestion and reduce traffic delays.”
The original route also minimizes the impact on historic sites, Dill said. And it avoids a dispute with Essex Junction, which strongly opposes the 2A options. The Williston Selectboard has also said it prefers the route.
The decision announced last week marks an unexpected twist in the Circ saga.
After releasing an assessment of the options in May 2007, the Observer and other media organizations have repeatedly asked when the final pick would be made. Dill acknowledged that media inquiries prompted release of information about the route before the design was chosen. Transportation officials had already told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which route they preferred as part of that agency’s review, Dill said, so they decided to publicly disclose the information.

Continued dissatisfaction

Environmental groups were sharply critical of how the state has conducted the study and perplexed that a route was chosen before it was finished.
“The process of environmental review has taken over four years and cost $7.5 million, and it is still not complete,” said Sandra Levine, senior attorney with the Vermont chapter of the Conservation Law Foundation.  
She questioned how the Agency of Transportation could pick the route before the study is done, calling it “just another chapter in the agency’s continued bungling of the project.”
Paul Burns, executive director the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said in an e-mail that the state was ignoring the study’s finding that other alternatives were less expensive.
“Frankly, at a time when Vermont commuters are demanding better solutions from the government, they’re being served a plate of warmed-over hash with this plan,” he wrote. “Vermonters deserve better than that, particularly when transportation officials were given a ‘do-over’ by the judge in this case.”
Both VPRIG and CLF were among a coalition of environmental groups that proposed the Vermont 2A alternatives. They said widening 2A and adding roundabouts would be less expensive and move traffic more efficiently than building the Circ, which under the original plan would be a limited-access highway.
But after extensive analysis, transportation officials concluded that the 2A alternatives created more problems than they solved.
Widening 2A would attract 35 to 55 percent more traffic, the Agency of Transportation said, increasing delays at the many intersections between Interstate 89 in Williston and the Five Corners in Essex Junction.
Environmental groups have pointed to data collected during the study that shows the average motorist saves only four minutes of travel time if the original Circ design is built. But Dill said four minutes equals a 15 percent savings for a typical trip and is no small thing when multiplied by thousands of vehicles.
Replacing traffic signals with roundabouts would only improve flow along parts of 2A, the agency said. Other stretches would get worse, particularly at the intersection of Marshall Avenue, where motorists could see delays equivalent to a 100-car backup during the afternoon rush hour.
Dill acknowledged that the 2A alternatives have a smaller impact on wetlands but points out that most of those effects can be mitigated or minimized. He said the 2A options affect historic structures, and those impacts cannot be offset.
Finally, the agency concluded that the 2A options are impractical because Essex Junction simply won’t permit them. The village controls condemnation rights for land near Five Corners that would be needed for any 2A project. Dill said only state legislation could override the village’s staunch opposition, and he said that is unlikely.

Years in the making

The Circ as originally proposed decades ago called for a 16-mile, limited-access highway from Interstate 89 in Williston to Vermont 127 in Colchester. Only the Essex segment has been constructed.
Work on the Williston portion was just beginning in May 2004 when a federal judge, responding to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, ruled that more information was needed on the highway’s impacts before the project could proceed. Transportation officials then decided to update the previous environmental study dating back to the 1980s.
Now a design must be selected, which Dill said would likely combine elements of a traditional limited-access highway with a boulevard that could include at-grade crossings and slower speeds.
Dill said regardless of the design, construction won’t start anytime soon. The Army Corps of Engineers has yet to decide which option is both practical and causes the least environmental damage.
Then officials must pick a preferred design and obtain permits, including state Act 250 land-use authorization.
Dill estimated it could take two years in all to restart highway construction in Williston — if environmental groups do not sue again.
Levine said she could not say if CLF would seek court action until the environmental review is finished. She still hopes the route announced last week is not the final decision.
“I’m hopeful that an effective, lower-cost solution will ultimately be selected,” she said.