Never heard of Interstate 289?

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(Host) Commentator Tim McQuiston says that in a few months Interstate 289 may be the biggest celebrity construction project in Vermont.

(McQuiston) The Circumferential Highway. The highway to economic heaven. The savior of IBM in Vermont. A quick way to get to the outlet stores.

The beneficiary of stormwater legislation last year and White House muscle this year, the Circ Highway will connect I-89 in Williston to Burlington’s northern connector via Colchester. Its next segment is set for construction this fall. Maybe.

You could also call it the Controversial Highway. All there is to show for it after 30 years of planning is a four-mile section in Essex and an ancient sign along Route 2 telling commuters that it’s on its way.

Presidential candidate Howard Dean, when he used to be governor, was a vehement opponent of the Circ, until IBM laid off 1,500 workers during his last year as governor.

But Dean was one of the reasons the Circ isn’t any farther along than it did. Environmental groups were also against it. Most of the current opposition is predicated on sprawl that this highway spur would spawn convenience-store development into the current and former farm fields of Williston, by literally driving development into rural interchanges.

That probably won’t happen, and better not happen. It’s one thing to sell this 16-mile highway as an economic development requirement. It’s another for it to turn into an ugly mess.

It’s true reason for being is no longer to alleviate choke points at Five Corners in Essex Junction or along Mallets Bay in Colchester. Frankly, it’s to keep IBM in Vermont. Despite all those layoffs, IBM still employs 7,000, making it Vermont’s 17th largest town. To lose IBM scares nearly everyone, not the least of whom are politicians in Montpelier. For most of Dean’s term, IBM was growing, now it’s future is in question. There is reason to worry.

The point here is that IBM officials in Vermont are still pushing hard for the Circ to be built to help the massive plant stay competitive. They must not be kidding. You know how when someone complains so much you start to believe them? For whatever reason, either to keep the plant a modern and viable facility on IBM’s giant game board, or to make the site more attractive to a potential buyer, IBM really does think the Circ is necessary. The lack of it is not just an excuse to abandon the plant.

Of the whopping $180 million price tag, most of the cost will be picked up by the feds. The Williston section is inevitable. Go ahead and build it. Contain the sprawl. And let’s see what happens next.

This is Timothy McQuiston.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.

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