Bennington Bypass opens after 30 years of planning

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(Host) More than four decades after it was conceived, the first leg of the Bennington Bypass will open to traffic on Tuesday morning at 10 o’clock. As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, local residents are waiting with anticipation – and a little bit of concern – to see the effect the new highway will have on downtown Bennington.

(Zind) When State Senator Dick Sears bought his first home in Bennington in 1974, the realtor told him he’d picked a convenient location – near the soon to be build first leg of the Bennington bypass.

Thirty years later, the mile and a half long shunt around the congested village is complete. Sears says for many years the unconstructed Bypass was a symbol of state neglect of southwestern Vermont. Now that’s changing.

(Sears) “In many respects, the Bypass and the $20 million project between Searsburg and Wilmington on Route 9 are two of the signals that maybe we’re not being as forgotten as we used to be.”

(Zind) The completed first leg of the Bypass will route northbound traffic from New York onto Route 7 north of Bennington. Many of the large trucks that now have to negotiate the busy downtown intersection of Routes 9 and 7 will bypass the business district.

Downtown merchants are concerned that some tourist business will also bypass Bennington as a result of the new highway. In response, the state has agreed to add the word “downtown” to highway signs that point the way to Bennington and to erect a number of signs for local attractions.

From her office window at the Bennington Banner, editor Sabina Haskell looks out over the downtown intersection.

(Haskell) “The traffic right now is backed up about three or four blocks. It’s pretty crowded right now.”

(Zind) Haskell says she’s not sure what she’ll see from her window after the first leg of the Bypass is opened Tuesday morning. She says Bennington won’t see the full effect of the Bypass project until the second and third legs are built. They’ll re-route traffic coming into Bennington from other directions. Construction on the second section is scheduled to begin in 2006 or 2007. There’s no timetable yet for the final leg.

Senator Dick Sears says in order to build the rest of the Bypass and fund other large highway projects the state needs to consider bonding to pay for them. Sears says there are too many urgent transportation needs for the state to pay its share as it does now – basically using with cash on hand.

(Sears) “There just isn’t the yearly money on a pay-as-you-go basis for projects like the Bennington Bypass. And I use the example, if we started in the south on the Interstate highway, we’d still be in Brattleboro today on a pay-as-you-go basis. So I think Vermont needs to reexamine its opposition to bonding.”

(Zind) Five years ago the watchdog groups Taxpayers for Commons Sense and Friends of the Earth included the Bennington Bypass on a list of the country’s 50 most wasteful road projects and in the past there has been some organized local opposition to the project. But Sears and Sabina Haskell say the Bypass has enjoyed broad local support.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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