Shumlin Halts Highway Project

05/20/11 5:04PM By John Dillon
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(Host) Gov. Peter Shumlin says it's time to walk away from a controversial Chittenden County highway project.

Shumlin says the Circumferential Highway faces too many obstacles, including lack of funding and a dispute between federal agencies over its environmental costs. VPR's John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Governor Shumlin spoke at a Williston rest stop near where the 12-mile Circ Highway was supposed to connect to Interstate 89 and loop through Burlington suburbs.

Shumlin said too much money and time have gone into a project that no longer makes sense. He pointed out that just four miles of the road have been built despite 53 years of planning and $97 million in spending.

(Shumlin) "The Circ Highway as designed will not be built. There is division, there's a lack of funds, and the plan is not the best plan for solving the problems of the 21st century."

(Dillon) Shumlin called for new solutions to solve the region's traffic problems. Transportation Secretary Brian Searles said his agency will work with the Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization on alternatives. Those may include more local projects in Chittenden County.

(Searles) "We must redefine the project in terms of the problems it can solve and a price we can afford."

(Dillon) The Circ was designed to relieve traffic congestion at suburban bottlenecks such as the Five Corners area in Essex Junction. It was supported by five governors and by IBM, whose plant in Essex would be served by the road.

But environmentalists said it would contribute to suburban sprawl and harm natural areas. They cited the state's own studies that showed that the road would shave just minutes off an average commute.

The project has also divided federal agencies. The Federal Highway Administration recently gave the green light. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it would oppose Clean Water Act permits because the highway would damage streams and wetlands in the area.

The dispute between the two agencies is ironic, given the original intent behind a federal earmark for the project.

(Post) "It was supposed to demonstrate how quickly you could build a highway cutting through federal state and local red tape."

(Dillon) Bruce Post worked for the late Senator Robert Stafford, who got the original $50 million in 1982. Post said Stafford later came to regret his support for the Circ.

(Post) "Towards the end of his career he told one of his top people that this was the worst mistake of his political career, getting that money."

(Dillon) But the highway still has strong support in Chittenden County. Linda Myers is a Republican who represents Essex.

(Myers) "I still don't think that what anybody's planning will solve the traffic problems that we have in Essex, Essex Junction, Williston and Colchester. We are the community that the suburban communities come through to get into Burlington."

(Dillon) A spokesman for IBM said company was ready to work with the state on solutions to its traffic issues. IBM would like to see a direct access road from Interstate 89 to its facility in Essex Junction.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon.

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circumferential_highway peter_shumlin transportation essex politics environment
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