Chittenden County plans for transportation growth

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(Host) Officials in Vermont’s most populous county have ambitious plans for new roads and rail projects. Draft proposals for Chittenden County include expanding Interstate 89 to six lanes and developing new rail passenger service to surrounding areas. The plans are preliminary. But already there’s concern that the cost could take money away from projects needed in southern Vermont.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) As the fastest-growing region in Vermont, Chittenden County is plagued with traffic jams and suburban sprawl. The county also has its own agency dedicated solely to transportation. It’s called the Metropolitan Planning Organization and it’s now considering a 25-year plan for new road projects and public transit improvements.

The draft plan says bus service should be doubled to surrounding towns and commuter rail should be extended to Franklin and Washington counties.

The plan also calls for widening Interstate 89 to six lanes from Williston to Milton. That 15-mile stretch of highway is one of the most congested in Vermont. Bill Knight, the executive director of the planning organization, says over the next 25 years, thousands more people will use the road:

(Knight) “Without any improvement to the roadway or public transportation, we’re projecting a 300% increase in congestion. The various draft plans can bring it down to something that’s more tolerable, to a 30, 40, 50% increase. So we’ll still have congestion because we can’t build our way out of it, but we can deal with it.”

(Dillon) Knight isn’t sure how much the new lanes on the interstate would cost. But all the Chittenden County projects outlined in the draft plan would cost almost three billion dollars over 25 years. This includes highway maintenance as well as new construction. The report says the price tag for new projects is about $350 million.

But Chittenden County is not the only region of Vermont with a transportation wish list. In Bennington, town manager Stuart Hurd says he’s concerned that projects in northern Vermont could compete with the Bennington Bypass. The bypass is designed to solve traffic problems in the southwestern corner of the state.

(Hurd) “I mean the transportation dollars that are generated annually and through the federal government obviously can only go so far. And the state has massive bridge and highway infrastructure problems throughout the state. This would seem to me to take a big chunk of that pie for Chittenden County, so there’s no question that there would end up being competition, one county to the next.”

(Dillon) Some environmentalists are also concerned that the Chittenden County plan places too much emphasis on new roads. Brian Dunkiel is a Burlington lawyer who represents Friends of the Earth. Dunkiel says the plan calls for the new lanes on the interstate because of the additional traffic caused by the proposed Circumferential Highway, known as the Circ:

(Dunkiel) “Of all the options reviewed, the draft plan recommends the option that involves the second highest increase in new construction across the county. So if this plan is adopted, it would without question put Chittenden County on the path of pavement, just like New Jersey.”

(Dillon) The Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization will hold public meetings on the transportation plan early next year.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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