Federal review approves Circ Highway construction

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(Host) Federal officials have cleared the way for construction to begin this fall on a controversial Chittenden County highway. Governor Jim Douglas says the decision is good news for business growth in the region. But environmental groups may sue to halt the project.

VPR’s John Dillon has the latest development:

(Dillon) The Federal Highway Administration says its review of the Circumferential Highway shows that the project will not harm the environment. Governor Douglas was delighted by the news. And he says the 16-mile highway is a key part of his economic development strategy.

IBM, which this week laid off 500 workers, has wanted the Circ to ease traffic jams around its Essex Junction plant. The governor says Friday’s announcement sends a strong signal that the state is serious about improving the transportation infrastructure.

(Douglas) “It’s very clear that when IBM has made its decisions through the years about where to grow and expand, there’ve been a number of issues it’s considered: high cost of electricity, certainly, the regulatory system and tax structure in our state. But the lack of the Circumferential Highway has been key among those considerations. So it’s very important for the opportunity to create jobs that we complete this project as quickly as possible.”

(Dillon) Douglas says the review shows the project will protect the environment and ease traffic congestion.

Environmentalists believe otherwise. Brian Dunkiel is a lawyer who represents Friends of the Earth. He cites studies that show that the Circ will actually make traffic worse. And he points to the possibility of suburban sprawl and increased water pollution.

(Dunkiel) “Basically what it showed, traffic was going to be moved around by the Circ, not relieved by the Circ. And with regards to clean water, our experts told us that the Circ was going to result in major stormwater problems.”

(Dillon) Last year, when Douglas was running for governor, the White House stepped in and put the Circ Highway on a fast track for environmental review. Dunkiel says if his clients sue to stop the project, the Bush administration’s role may be challenged as well.

(Dunkiel) “In many ways, the Circ Highway through the White House’s intervention in this process, by calling this highway fast-tracked, is going to become a test case. A test case as to whether or not the Bush administration’s fast track of transportation projects through the NEPA process is legal.”

(Dillon) Douglas is clearly not happy about the potential for another legal challenge.

(Douglas) “There are special interest groups ready to sue at the drop of a hat. That’s all they do is file lawsuits trying to block progress and prevent Vermonters from getting decent jobs. I think most Vermonters understand that with the lay offs at IBM and the softness is the economy overall, we need to make sure Vermont companies can compete. A key part of that competition is infrastructure.”

(Dillon) The decision means the state will put initial construction contracts out to bid in early September. The state hopes to break ground in late October.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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