EPA says state must reassess Circ highway

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(Host) The Environmental Protection Agency says the state needs to look at alternatives to a large highway project proposed for Chittenden County. The EPA says that the new environmental assessment of the project was inadequate. The federal agency is concerned that the highway will contribute to suburban sprawl and will add to air and water pollution in the region.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) The 16-mile Circumferential Highway is planned to link the suburbs around Burlington and to relieve traffic congestion near the IBM plant in Essex. But the EPA says the road may not fix the problem that it’s intended to solve. The agency has called on the state and the federal highway administration to look at alternatives to the project.

The EPA just filed formal comments on an environmental assessment prepared for the state and federal government. The EPA’s Rosemary Monahan says the new study is inadequate because it didn’t look at the full range of environmental impacts.

(Monahan) “Our feeling is the environmental assessment falls short on a couple of fronts. The areas we think the information could be improved is in taking a look at the secondary environmental impacts of building the next section of the Circ highway. That is, will it induce new growth above and beyond the growth that might occur anyway? And what are the environmental impacts of that growth?”

(Dillon) The EPA wants a new environmental impact study that would look at suburban sprawl that the highway may cause. The agency’s also concerned about air pollution from cars, and the potential damage to nearby streams from the run-off from the miles of new pavement.

Monahan says the highway may in fact cause new traffic problems. That’s due to something called induced travel, which means that people sometimes are enticed to drive more miles on new roads:

(Monahan) “It’s the old ‘if you build it, they will come’ phenomenon. It’s not certain that will happen in Vermont. But there’s been a growing number of studies that’s looked at highway projects after they’re built, to try to answer that question: if you build it, do they come? Are there additional trips? Some of it comes from longer trips, some of it comes from increased trips taken.”

(Dillon) The Circ Highway is expected to cost $180 million. The EPA wants the state to see if there are less expensive alternatives, such as a commuter rail, or incentives to get people to carpool.

State Transportation Secretary Brian Searles says he doesn’t believe more studies are needed. He says a combination of strategies – including commuter rail and the new road – are needed to ease traffic congestion in Chittenden County.

(Searles) “I think the federal highway administration did a good job in updating the environmental assessment and EPA obviously has a different opinion. It’s really up to federal highway to decide whether and how to incorporate this comment from either the public or other interested parties. In the meantime, we’re preparing to go out to bid next month.”

Searles says construction on the next section of the highway could begin later this fall.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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