Plans for an additional transportation corridor through Burlington’s south end to the waterfront – once known as the Southern Connector, today called the Champlain Parkway — have been hotly debated for almost 50 years.
At the City Council meeting on Monday, Mayor Miro Weinberger unveiled his administration’s thinking about how to overcome the obstacles and criticisms that have delayed the project for so long.
Weinberger’s strategy, which will be formally presented for council approval in October, is to link Pine Street to Battery Street through a new “urban street grid south of Maple Street” while separately pursuing a railyard enterprise project that will stimulate mixed-used economic development.
In a written and oral update to the council, Weinberger reviewed recent discussions with state officials, neighborhood groups and property owners, and provided a “conceptual drawing” of the proposed new street grid. He also shared an August letter from Secretary of Transportation Brian Searles about the relationship between the parkway and the proposed Railyard Enterprise District.
Searles has recommended that the best way to proceed is “to pursue them as separate projects.” But he also warns that “the Champlain Parkway as currently conceived must either be built as designed or not built at all.”
If the city opts not to build, he notes, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) says “that the minimum payback for the Champlain Parkway would be approximately $5 million and the cooperative agreement that the City has with the State would require the City to be responsible for such payments.”
In June, the City Council asked the new mayor to explore alternatives to the proposed route of the parkway to reduce traffic impacts on the King Street neighborhood and report back by the end of September. “I’m pleased we’re back with a real option before us,” Weinberger announced Monday night.
Last Thursday, Weinberger held an on-site press conference to preview the two projects with Searles, Council President Joan Shannon, Progressive Councilor Rachel Siegel, developer Ernie Pomerleau, and others. Shannon thanked Weinberger and Searles for listening to neighborhood voices.
Seigel described the occasion as a moment “when members of Burlington’s different political parties are in agreement, not only about the value of the southern waterfront project, but also about the vital importance of enhancing the lower King Street neighborhood.”
Peter Owens, recently appointed Director of the Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO), explained on Monday night that state legislative approval will eventually be needed. But he and Weinberger noted that state officials support sharing the cost of the roadway and other eligible elements, with 80 percent in federal funding and 10 percent each from the city and state.
Completion would involve road construction on land owned by Burlington, the state and property controlled by Vermont Rail System. “This is a change in policy,” said Weinberger. It represents a state commitment “to support this new grid of streets that creates that link,” he argued.
Weinberger met with Searles on July 11 to discuss the status of the Champlain Parkway and wrote a follow-up letter that summed up what was discussed. Modifications of the connector-turned-parkway over the years have changed “how it operates to redistribute traffic and its potential to stimulate private investment and encourage economic development,” he explained.
The current design was described in the letter as “a reasonable multi-model compromise balancing well automobiles, pedestrians, bicyclists and rail.” However, Weinberger also acknowledged local concerns about traffic impacts and truck access to the railyard.
In addition, the letter discussed the proposed Railyard Enterprise District, which is expected to stimulate economic development “through the creation of additional street frontage.” Weinberger described a “new public street framework” that could open up commercial space and room for more downtown housing. He asked Searles to take a “critical look” at the parkway and explain how the state and federal government see the relationship between that and the railyard project.
In an Aug. 9 response, Searles pointed out that the Champlain Parkway has already won conditional Act 250 approval and is waiting for storm water permits. FHWA has also issued an approval. Under the National Environmental Protection Act, once a project has reached this stage, it cannot be amended to include “other significant elements such as new streets that were not included in the original design.”
In short, the road must be “built as designed or not built at all,” Searles wrote.
If Burlington tries to add the railyard project at this point, “the entire federal process would start over again” and FHWA financial participation would become “doubtful.” Searles added that any major change would also cancel the funding ratio for the parkway, currently 95 percent federal with only 5 percent shared by the city and state.
Searles’ recommendation was to handle the two projects separately, a suggestion that has apparently been adopted. Proceeding this way would potentially mean that 80 percent of the railyard project’s costs could be federally funded. However, if Burlington ultimately chose not to build the parkway, “the FHWA has informed me that the minimum payback for the Champlain Parkway would be approximately $5 million,” he wrote.
Running a spur road through the railyard could also create problems, he added, since the area has been designated an historic district. However, Searles also wrote that the Shumlin administration supports improved access to the railyard “for the movement of freight in and out of Burlington.”
The first steps, he concluded, are local support for both projects and their inclusion in the regional Transportation Improvement Program. At some point the state Legislature would have to include them in the State Transportation Capital program. In the meantime, Searles has offered VTrans support “to better define the project, identify impacts that may need to be mitigated and include the project in our recommended program to the Legislature.”
Initial reactions from members of the council were guardedly positive. “I would rather put the southern connector out of its misery, but this feels optimistic,” Shannon concluded.
In October, Weinberger will seek council approval of a resolution allowing the administration to move forward on both fronts. The immediate objective is authorization to continue with the current city-state Cooperative Agreement on the parkway and, at the same time, to “commence scoping” for the Railyard Enterprise District.
Curtain calls for Adrian and Sisson
In a letter to the City Council that attracted little attention, Mayor Weinberger announced that Interim Chief Administration Officer Paul Sisson “will not be my permanent CAO appointee.”
Sisson was the first person Weinberger appointed last April. “I am grateful for the valuable contributions Paul has made to the City during my transition into office, especially his work that led to the unanimous passage of the budget in June, and to the Council vote to place the Fiscal Stability Bond on the November 6 ballot,” the mayor wrote.
The national search for a permanent CAO is in its “latter stages,” according to the letter. However, since Sisson’s appointment expires at the end of September, Weinberger has asked the council to extend his term until a replacement is approved, or until the end of 2012. Sisson has agreed to keep working until his successor is in place.
The departure of Ward 1 Councilor Ed Adrian, who attended his final meeting on Monday, received more attention, including testimonials during the public forum period.
The praise cut across party lines. Fellow Democrat Norm Blais described Adrian as “tough but fair” and a “consummate advocate.” Republican Vince Dober said, “You have definitely kept it interesting.”
Independent Sharon Bushor, who once faced Adrian in a council election, acknowledged that his challenging style “made me better as a city councilor.”
After listening to the praise and accepting a plaque from his colleagues, Adrian noted that the political terrain has changed with a “very different council” and new mayor. “I feel there is more collaboration,” he said.
Momentarily humbled by the praise, Adrian nevertheless managed to deliver a joke and a promise. “I don’t have a terminal illness,” he said, “and I’m not moving.”