WILLISTON, Vt. (AP) After more than 50 years of planning, environmental reviews, lawsuits, $97 million of spending and more planning, state officials announced May 20 they’re giving up on the Chittenden County Circumferential Highway (Circ).
Gov. Peter Shumlin cited dwindling federal funds available for major highway projects, continued opposition and the threat of more legal challenges, and the fact that even the two key federal agencies reviewing the project had recently issued conflicting reviews of it.
“The Circ ... will not be built,” Shumlin said at a highway rest area east of Burlington near where the road was to connect with Interstate 89. “Let’s face that reality while also recognizing that significant transportation problems exist in this region that need to be addressed.”
The road would have run through Williston and Essex before reconnecting with I-89 north of Burlington in Colchester and continuing on to Vermont Route 127 in Mallets Bay. A 4-mi. (6.4 km) section in Essex is complete.
The state was furthest along in planning a next section of the road from Williston to Essex, with a tentative start date of 2014. But the $60 million segment depended on federal funding, now uncertain, and getting several state and federal permits, which were likely to draw more fights from environmentalists, said Sue Minter, deputy secretary of the state Agency of Transportation.
Shumlin said a new planning process would begin to address the county’s traffic problems with a series of smaller projects, most still to be designed.
“I believe we will find more cost-effective and modern solutions to our current challenges.”
The decision appears to close an epic political battle in Vermont that has continued through the administrations of five governors. It came nearly a decade after former Republican Gov. Jim Douglas won his first term in 2002 after running TV ads accusing Democratic Lt. Gov. Doug Racine of flip-flopping on the Circ.
“Today the state received the record of the decision from the Federal Highway Administration granting approval for the original project to move forward. However, on May 9, the state received a letter from the EPA indicating they would veto any such approval,” said a statement issued by Shumlin’s office.
The EPA cited likely harm to the wetlands that the road would pass through.
Longtime supporters of the project said they were disappointed but not surprised. Among them was Rep. Patrick Brennan, R-Colchester and chairman of the Transportation Committee in the Vermont House
“I’ve been a supporter of it for years, since I was old enough to understand congestion and safety issues that Colchester has without a highway such as the Circ. However at this point, after 53 years of planning and fighting the environmental people out there and the special-interest groups, we’re at a point now where we need to look to the future,” Brennan said May 20.
Environmentalists cited studies indicating the highway could contribute to suburban sprawl and would not bring the job growth its supporters promised.
Sandra Levine, senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, which brought a lawsuit that ended with a judge’s ruling that an environmental review had to be redone, said she was encouraged by the announcement, and particularly by Shumlin’s statements that he wanted to focus on smaller projects to address the transportation problems of Vermont’s most populous area.
“It’s great to focus on solutions. It’s wonderful to pull all of the interests together and figure out what can move forward, and we look forward to being part of that process,” Levine said.
The Conservation Law Foundation and other environmental groups joined several years ago to form the Vermont Smart Growth Collaborative. The group had proposed addressing one of the region’s most congested roadways — Route 2A from Williston to Essex, by replacing its traffic lights with traffic circles called roundabouts. Supporters of that traffic management technique say the circles slow traffic without stopping it and causing idling, improving safety and reducing pollution.