Shumlin ditches original Circ Highway plan, calls for redesign

Gov. Peter Shumlin. VTD/Eli Sherman

Gov. Peter Shumlin. VTD/Eli Sherman

WILLISTON – Gov. Peter Shumlin announced on Friday that the Chittenden County Circumferential Highway must be redesigned.

“The Circ, as originally conceived 30 years ago, will not be built,” Shumlin told reporters at a press conference at the I-89 northbound rest area in Williston. “Let’s face that reality while also recognizing that significant transportation problems exist in this region that need to be addressed. By bringing together stakeholders in the spirit of collaboration, I believe we will find more cost-effective and modern solutions to our current challenges.”

The proposed four-lane highway known as the Circ has been the subject of lawsuits and controversy for three decades. Shumlin’s decision to modify the proposal is a major shift in policy. Four previous governors supported the Circ as it was originally planned.

Last week, the chief administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked Shumlin to abandon the project.

The governor’s answer to the EPA’s request was yes — and no. Shumlin told reporters the Vermont Agency of Transportation would abandon the original Circ plans and present alternatives, including improvements to existing roads.

The Circ was first proposed in 1953. Since then only 4.5 miles of the originally proposed 12-mile highway from I-89 in Williston to Colchester has been constructed. The highway has been mired in litigation and public criticism. In all, $97 million has been spent on the Circ; $40 million on planning costs alone.

The Circ has been the subject of a longstanding source of friction between the business community, namely IBM, which would most directly benefit from the project, and environmentalists who have opposed the highway because it would cut through an important wetland, damage streams in Williston and lead to an increase in phosphorous pollution leaching into Lake Champlain.

Plans for the highway through Chittenden County to ease the flow of traffic have been drawn and redrawn several times in the intervening years.

Federal officials disagree, however, on how to proceed.

On May 9, the EPA sent a letter to Shumlin encouraging the state to reassess its support for the highway and focus its transportation efforts elsewhere. The Federal Highway Commission, however, continues to support the project.

EPA Regional administrator Curtis Spalding wrote: “Ending this project would enable all of us to turn our collective energies toward developing an environmentally sound solution to the regional transportation needs within Chittenden County.”

Shumlin said the Circ Highway isn’t “dead,” per se. Instead, he said VTrans would be “amending plans” for the highway.

He wants to modify the proposal and bring the opposing parties together.

“We are redesigning the Circ Highway proposal to reflect what can really get done versus the promises that have been made and have not been kept,” Shumlin said. “It is not ever going to be built the way it was designed.”

The new proposal involves several less ambitious, less comprehensive projects. Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization member Michele Boomhower discussed some of the smaller related projects including:

  • The crescent connector project at the five corners in Essex Junction.
  • Allen Martin Drive improvements in the town of Essex.
  • Interstate 89 exit 16 improvements in Colchester.

According to Boomhower these are a few of the related projects that will take the place of the original proposal which was a road that ran through Williston and Essex eventually connecting with Interstate 89.

Following the governor’s announcement, EPA New England commended Shumlin’s decision in a statement: “The governor’s prudent decision now allows the state to focus its efforts on developing an environmentally sound solution to the regional transportation needs within Chittenden County. EPA New England has offered its support to the state with this effort.”

Questions regarding financing and timeliness, however, are still up in the air. An estimated completion date for the new proposal cannot be pinpointed Boomhower said “because there are so many elements that are out of our control.”

Financing is also an issue because the federal government is preparing to deeply cut services and infrastructure investments.

“At this point we cannot answer the question of where the money will come from,” Boomhower said. “The solutions may be in many phases along the planning process.”

Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Brian Searles has worked closely with the Circumferential Highway proposal through the years, and he acknowledges the difficulties involved with the project.

“There are a lot of regular citizens who support this project and a lot of regular citizens who don’t,” Searles said. “We’ve got to design something that works for all of them.”

Shumlin said results from the projects will come “as fast as possible.” He brushed aside questions about the timeline.

“The new amended plan will be built and that’s what matters,” Shumlin said. “We are going to get results.”

Editor’s note: A write-through of this story was posted at 8:15 a.m., May 21, 2011.

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