Potholes or new pavement?

Transportation chief promotes road repairs

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Neale Lunderville is on a mission.

Lunderville, who heads the Vermont Agency of Transportation, has for the past few months visited local media outlets to spread word of Gov. Jim Douglas’s road maintenance initiative.

“ Vermont’s Road to Affordability” calls for the state to give maintenance of existing bridges, culverts and pavement priority over new road projects.

Lunderville sat down with the Observer for an hour-long interview covering that topic and local concerns such as the Circumferential Highway and the long-delayed Williston park-and-ride. Here are some excerpts:

Observer: Can you update us on the status of the Circumferential Highway? The last we knew the consultant working on the environmental review had delayed choosing a design.

Lunderville: They are continuing to do all the different studies of those alternatives. We anticipate there being a draft EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) in the coming months.

Observer: Can you hazard a closer guess about when that will be completed?

Lunderville: For the draft, no (chuckles). We anticipate it will be out before summer. That’s as close as I’ll get.

Observer: We wondered because the reason for the delay seemed a little vague.

Lunderville: In some ways, the Environmental Impact Statement is a lot more than just a study of the environmental factors. It is a litigation defense document. We’re studying everything so closely and in such a detailed way because we know that we’re going to end up in court having to defend this.

Observer: How do you know that?

Lunderville: At every stage of this – I’m going back in history – we’ve had a lawsuit. And the recent history is a great teacher for that.

The out-of-state environmental groups will come back once again and try to challenge us on the Environmental Impact Statement no matter how much we study this. They will want to try to stop this project as they have on an ongoing basis throughout the life of it.

So we’re studying everything. Every piece is being done in a detailed, technically complete way so that when we end up before the judge again we’ll be able to defend the final alternative.

Observer: The Williston park and ride facility closed in 1995 because its location near the interstate created a traffic hazard. But wasn’t it a mistake to close it without having a plan to open another one in Williston?

Lunderville: Park and rides are very important all around the state. We’re looking to really double the number of spots we have out there.

I’m from the area and, believe me, I know a park and ride in Williston is very important. The Richmond park and ride gets a lot of use, and I think some of the use they get is probably folks from Williston that might go to a Williston park and ride.

So you look at these things in balance: Do you want to expand Richmond or build one in Williston? I know broadly, in the agency, park and rides are a priority because they are being well utilized. Certainly, Richmond is at 106 percent capacity. So you know we could take some of the pressure off that by doing some other projects.

Observer: Williston officials complain that grants and funding for things such as paving projects have failed to keep up with increasing costs of asphalt and other materials. Does the state recognize the problem and are there plans to increase funding?

Lunderville: I think there is a recognition that construction costs are going up faster than our revenue is going up. That said, our overall transportation budget proposed for fiscal year ‘08 is going down 4 percent. So we’re not playing with a whole lot more money inside of our budget.

But some areas are going up. In fact, a lot of our line items reflect our realigned priorities to focus on system preservation, to focus on maintenance.

Certainly, towns do a big part of that. That’s why, to the extent we could, we tried to keep that at least level funded.

Observer: The Williston exit to Interstate 89 seems to be working smoothly since the state added a lane on the ramp. But town officials have said the state really needed to also add a lane on Vermont 2A. The problem is the overpass is too narrow, so it would need to be widened to accommodate the extra lane. Is there any talk of taking this project on, with its estimated $20 million cost?

Lunderville: The short answer is no. New, big projects like that are ones we have to look at and evaluate very carefully. We don’t have the money.

The root of our whole Road to Affordability proposal is we have an infrastructure that is deteriorating faster than our ability to fix it. We have to put our existing maintenance needs in balance with new projects like the one you mentioned.

Observer: Is there a number attached to the governor’s road maintenance initiative? In other words, how much money do you want to shift from maintenance to road building?

Lunderville: Our bridge and culvert maintenance efforts are going to be increased 89 percent in the budget the governor proposed. And our maintenance efforts overall are being increased.

We’ve got all these bridges, these culverts, these roads that we have to take care of. We have to fix them, we have to do the preventative maintenance on them, and it hasn’t been done. And this is not a problem that happened overnight. It developed over 20 or 30 years.

Observer: You’ve got a Legislature filled with people from towns that have projects they’d really like to see completed. How realistic is it to expect you’re going to get a budget that’s going to fit these new priorities?

Lunderville: It’s that kind of thinking that got us into the problem we’re in today. That said, I’ve had great response from the Legislature.

The House and Senate committees understand the real challenges our infrastructure is facing around the state. While there are district-by-district concerns about projects, I think they are beginning to understand that we need to take a more system-wide perspective on the problem and make the sacrifices today.

We’re not saying to build no new projects. We’re saying let’s get the balance right.

If we don’t make those hard decisions today, in five or 10 years, we’re not going to have any money to spend on any projects outside of fixing the failures on our existing system.