Tight transportation budget may cause Circ delays

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas says future sections of the Chittenden County Circumferential Highway may be delayed because the costs are higher than the state anticipated. The state Transportation Agency confirmed this week that the highway costs have grown by $40 million. Douglas says the state may have to adjust the construction schedule in order to pay for other transportation projects.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) The latest cost estimate for the 16-mile long highway that will loop through Burlington’s suburbs is $222 million. The cost went up by $40 million when the Transportation Agency released new estimates for sections of the highway scheduled for 2007.

The state, meanwhile, faces a growing demand for road and bridge repair. Key lawmakers say Vermont has a $100 million annual shortfall in money needed for both highway repair and new construction projects. Governor Douglas said at his weekly news conference that the Circ construction schedule may have to slip in order to accommodate other transportation needs.

(Douglas) “There’s no question that with increasing costs, it’s likely the schedule will lag. We had hoped the Circ would have been completed long before now. And as costs go up and we have to make other commitments to other infrastructure projects, I don’t think it’s at all unrealistic to recognize that it’s not going to be completed as quickly as we had hoped.”

(Dillon) Environmentalists have filed suit in federal court to halt work on the Circ. They charge that the state has violated federal law by relying on a 17 year old environmental impact study.

The Douglas administration has said the highway will promote economic development. Yet a state economic analysis done last year showed it would result in a job shift from Burlington to the suburbs, with a net loss of four jobs. The governor says he remains convinced that the road will promote job growth.

(Douglas) “I don’t know what some of these studies say. But intuitively I think most people realize that transportation infrastructure is key to economic growth and success. It’s important that we have capacity to move customers, employees and goods, both finished and unfinished around our communities. We heard that from our business community for a long time.”

(Dillon) The Vermont Public Interest Research Group is one of several environmental groups that’s trying to stop the project. VPIRG Executive Director Paul Burns said Vermont would be better off spending the scarce transportation funds on road repair and maintenance.

(Burns) “The state already has on its books a fix it first policy, and that’s really what should be the driver for the state at this time. You know, let’s look and see what kind of transportation projects we already have out there that are in need, in some cases in desperate need of repair. Fix those first and then consider the ways we can move people and goods more effectively throughout the state without spending tens of millions of dollars on unnecessary projects.”

(Dillon) The Transportation Agency is now paying $30,000 a day to the highway contractor because work on the Circ was supposed to start May 1. The judge in this case is expected to rule by Monday. Douglas says he doesn’t know what the state will do if it loses the case.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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