(Host) New environmental studies related to a proposed highway in Chittenden County are taking longer and will cost more than expected.
Meanwhile, the state is engaged in settlement discussions with groups opposed to the Circumferential Highway.
VPR’s John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) The Circ Highway is a 16-mile, $180 million dollar road that’s designed to link the suburbs around Burlington. Supporters say it will relieve traffic congestion. Opponents say the road is an outdated concept that will foster suburban sprawl.
A federal judge stopped the project in 2004 because the state and federal government failed to conduct the detailed environmental review as required by law.
Transportation Secretary Neale Lunderville says the court-ordered environmental review became more costly because eight alternatives are now being studied.
(Lunderville) “And doing all those studies is going to cost us more than we anticipated. But one thing we wanted to make sure is that this is a technically complete document. So that when we’re done this process and we have a preferred alternative for that project that it’s one where every report and every study has been done.”
(Dillon) After the judge stopped the project, the state first thought the environmental impact review would cost between $2 and $4 million. It later upped that estimate to $5.2 million.
Last spring, officials added another million dollars to the cost projections. Lunderville said the numbers haven’t changed much since then. But officials had hoped to brief the public this fall on the eight alternatives. Those hearings have since been postponed.
(Lunderville) “We pushed off the meetings until after the New Year to allow us to get us to get our information together a little bit more comprehensively.”
(Dillon) At the same time the state is looking at alternatives, it’s also taken steps to appeal the federal court’s decision. Paul Burns is director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, an environmental organization that’s fighting the new road. He says he’s baffled by the decision to pursue an appeal.
(Burns) “I think they’re wasting taxpayer’s dollars. I don’t think there’s any other way of really looking at it. How do you simultaneously investigate alternatives as the court requires you to do, spend millions of dollars and years of effort on that even while you continue to litigate over whether or not you’ll be required to do that what you’re already doing. It boggles the mind.”
(Dillon) The state is also pursuing a third track. It’s engaged in settlement talks with environmentalists to stop the litigation. But the talks are covered by a confidentiality agreement and Lunderville says he can’t comment.
(Lunderville) “As with any appeal, you’re going to have an opportunity for both parties to settle, to keep it out of appeals court. We’re pursuing those avenues right now. Were not sure where that will lead but we want to pursue every opportunity we have to address the critical needs in Chittenden County.”
(Dillon) Lawyers for the environmental groups have also declined to talk about the settlement discussions.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.