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Feds Authorize Second Phase of Circumferential Highway

Wed September 10, 2003 - Northeast Edition

MONTPELIER, VT (AP) The state is ready to begin construction later this year on the second phase of the Circumferential Highway project through Chittenden County, Gov. James Douglas said Aug. 22.

The final roadblock was lifted when the Federal Highway Administration issued a formal decision clearing the way for construction, Douglas said.

“By beginning construction this fall we are sending a powerful signal to existing employers and potential employers that we are serious about improving traffic congestion,” Douglas said.

It’s unclear if opponents of the project will continue their legal battle to prevent construction of the 3.8-mi. segment of the highway between Williston and Essex.

Brian Dunkiel, an attorney for Friends of the Earth, one of the longtime opponents of the Circ, said it was too soon to say what action, if any, would be taken.

“My client Friends of the Earth and Conservation Law Foundation will review the record of decision and evaluate what the legal options are. If the revised assessment and record of decision don’t satisfy the legal obligations a lawsuit will be filed.”

The Conservation Law Foundation and Friends of the Earth have an appeal pending of a state water permit issued for the project.

The state isn’t waiting for those cases to be resolved. The Vermont Agency of Transportation is planning to begin the bid process and hopes to choose a contractor by Oct. 10. Construction could begin soon after that.

“We have authority to move forward and we are going to do so,” Douglas said.

Douglas has used the “Circ” as an example of the kind of infrastructure he says Vermont needs to be able to attract and retain jobs. The section approved would link Interstate 89 and the IBM plant in Essex.

Last year President Bush chose the Circ as one of seven across the country as a high priority Transportation Infrastructure Project, putting it on the fast-track to federal approval. Douglas announced that fast-track approval during the gubernatorial campaign.

Douglas said if the president had not put the Circ on the fast track it was unlikely it would have been approved so quickly.

But Dunkiel said the president’s move could be part of an appeal.

“The bottom line is in many ways this highway has become a Bush White House highway,” Dunkiel said. “The legality of the executive order will be tested if the highway is challenged in court.”

The Circumferential Highway, formally known as Vermont 289, is planned to be a 15.8-mi. ring road through the northern and eastern suburbs of Burlington. It is designed to ease traffic congestion.

The Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce and others praised the approval.

“Now more then ever, the Circ Highway is a vital and essential component of an integrated transportation network and will be beneficial for economic development in northwestern Vermont as well as the entire state,” said Frank Cioffi, the president of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp.

So far, one 4-mi. segment has been built in Essex, between Vermont Route 117 and Vermont Route 2A.

The $45-million phase announced would connect Interstate 89 near Taft Corners to the existing section of the Circ in Essex. Construction is expected to take three years.

Project Manager Rich Ranaldo said that while construction is under way on the Williston section he and others would prepare for the next section that would link Essex and Vermont Route 127 in Colchester, near Burlington.

Opponents of the Circ have argued the highway would increase suburban sprawl and contribute to water pollution.

“The question is have they been corrected in the revised environmental assessment?” Dunkiel said.

Dunkiel said he would be studying whether the latest documents addressed those concerns. He didn’t know how long it would take.

“We’re talking thousands of pages of documents here,” he said.