Study of Circ Highway options released

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The original Circumferential Highway design does the best overall job of relieving traffic congestion, according to a study of road-building alternatives released Tuesday.

The study marks the third step in a five-part, court-mandated Environmental Impact Statement. The analysis considers a plethora of alternatives to the original Circ design, comparing how each would affect traffic, safety, the environment and many other factors.

“This is a little like American Idol,” said Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Neale Lunderville at a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “You start with a list of alternatives and pare them down.”

The analysis looks at 10 options as well as a no-build alternative. The options fall into three categories: build a limited-access highway or a boulevard along the originally planned Circ route between Interstate 89 in Williston and Vermont Route 117 in Essex; widen Vermont Route 2A to three or four lanes through Williston and Essex; or construct a hybrid that uses parts of each approach.

Results of the analysis are mixed. Some of the Route 2A and hybrid options do better in categories such as safety, cost and environmental impacts. But when it comes to traffic relief, the original Circ design beats the other options, albeit sometimes by only a narrow margin.

For example, building the Circ would reduce backups along Route 2A, avoiding a failing level of service (defined as a wait of 80 seconds or more) at all intersections during morning and afternoon rush hours. Three intersections currently fail, and six would fail by 2030 without any new road construction, according to the analysis.

Some of the other options, however, work nearly as well. For example, the hybrid option that calls for widening Route 2A to three lanes, replacing traffic lights with roundabouts and building a street along the Circ route also eliminates failing intersections.

All the other alternatives leave one or two failing intersections.

As for improving traffic flow between Route 2A intersections, the Circ finishes only in the middle of the pack. Two of the Route 2A widening options and two of the hybrid alternatives do better.

A limited-access Circ is best at speeding the commute between Williston and Essex Junction, according to the analysis. When all possible routes between the two towns are considered, building a limited-access highway would cut the average travel time between the two towns by 7-15 percent. Other options show small improvements ranging from 10 percent to 0.5 percent.

The analysis said the Circ options have a clear advantage in two other categories: moving truck traffic off local roads and relieving congestion on North Williston Road, which some motorists use instead of Route 2A.

The study marks the latest development in the long-running Circumferential Highway saga.

The highway as originally proposed was supposed to be a 16-mile bypass running from Williston to Colchester. Only the middle segment in Essex has been built.

Work on the Williston segment had started in May 2004 when a federal judge ordered construction to halt until a new Environmental Impact Statement could be completed. The former study dated back to the 1980s.

Transportation officials presented results of the new analysis during a pair of meetings in Burlington and Essex on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. A third session is scheduled in Jericho on Thursday.

A draft of the Environmental Impact Statement is scheduled to be released in July. A 45-day public comment period follows, during which a public hearing will be held.

The final EIS and selection of the preferred alternative is expected by spring 2008.

But don’t expect highway construction to start then. Lunderville said he is nearly certain that opponents will sue to stop construction no matter which option is picked. That could delay the project by months or years.