Federal Agencies Agree on Circ Highway

Thu May 22, 2003 - National Edition

MONTPELIER (AP) An agreement between two federal agencies could clear the way for construction of the next sections of the Chittenden County Circumferential Highway to begin by fall.

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced April 30 that they had dropped their earlier request that an update of a 16-year-old environmental study on the project be scrapped in favor of a much more comprehensive, start-from-scratch review.

Two new sections of the long-debated suburban loop road around Burlington “are on track for construction to begin sometime after Labor Day,” said Gov. James Douglas, who played host to officials from the EPA and the Federal Highway Administration at his weekly news conference.

“The Circ Highway is a critical transportation project for economic growth in Chittenden County,” Douglas said in a statement. “The project has been planned, studied, discussed and restudied for the better part of 30 years and its significance to job creation and job retention cannot be understated.”

Robert Varney, regional administrator for New England with the EPA, said the project would undergo an environmental assessment, rather than the more thorough and time-consuming environmental impact statement.

He and other officials said documents related to the assessment are likely to be issued in mid-May, with a 30-day public comment period to follow.

The announcement came eight months after the EPA raised concerns about an issue that was on few people’s minds when the first environmental impact statement on the highway was issued in the 1980s: “secondary impacts,” or suburban sprawl.

Critics of the highway project, which has been under discussion for three decades, have complained that it will contribute to rapid growth in what had been rural parts of Chittenden County.

“While secondary impacts might not have been our primary concern when the original EIS was developed, our understanding of the growth impacts of transportation projects has evolved in the intervening 16 years,” Varney wrote in a letter last August. “Recent studies have shown the strong connection between transportation and land use, and the public has grown increasingly concerned about sprawl.”

But on April 30, he and other officials from the EPA and Federal Highway Administration joined Douglas and Vermont Transportation Secretary Patricia McDonald in saying the process had been speeded up after an executive order by President Bush last fall urging that such projects be built as quickly as possible.

One question that remains up in the air is whether the state will work against gas stations and other commercial development near the exits from the new highway, to be numbered Interstate 289.

Douglas said he had not decided whether to continue an executive order issued by former Gov. Howard Dean that sought to bar such development near interstate exits.

Varney said his agency’s studies of the project had “assumed existing laws would remain in effect.” It was unclear what would happen to those studies’ veracity if the existing executive order against development around highway exits is lifted.