Keelan: Bennington Bypass no road of dreams

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Don Keelan of Arlington.

The state of Vermont refers to it as Bennington NH 019-1 (5).  Local officials refer to it as the Northern Segment of the Bennington Bypass.  The rest of us refer to it as the Bennington Motor Vehicle Obstacle Course.

For four years, ever since construction on the Northern Segment of the bypass commenced, never does a week go by (except during the winter months) when the driving pattern of U.S. Route 7/Vt. Route 279 does not change.

Hundreds, if not thousands,  of those orange and white inverted plastic barrels are rearranged, directing traffic into newly created temporary driving lanes—literally yards away from enormous earth/rock moving equipment—and we are only at the two-thirds point, the western segment, of Vt. Route 279, completed in October 2004.

By southwestern Vermont standards, the Bennington Bypass would be the equivalent of what the “Big Dig” was to Boston—when completed,  the interchange, from an aerial perspective, will rival a Los Angeles, Calif., interchange.

According to the state’s Agency of Transporation  Web site, discussion with local legislators and project manager and AOT official Jim Harris, the Bennington Bypass is a large undertaking.

The project had been conceived over 50 years ago (Harris has a newspaper article that dates back to 1926 addressing the bypass)—mainly to “reduce delay, improve safety and decrease congestion” in the Bennington area—especially so where the two major east/west and north/south roads intersect, Vt. Route 9 and U.S. Route 7.  The goals are still the same today.

The three-mile Northern Segment, with a $95 million price tag, will direct traffic to the east from southbound U.S. 7 and eastbound Route 279, to Vt. Route 9, just outside of downtown Bennington,.  According to the AOTs, this extraordinary cost per mile ($31.6 million) is in part due to:

a)   Relocating three high-tension power lines, 7,500 feet in length.

b)   Building five bridges, three of which are over 470 feet in length.

c)    Removing the dangerous rockslide at the earlier built Exit 2 on U.S. Route 7.

d)    Circumventing wetlands and access to Bald Mountain and the Long Trail.

Of course, what is not mentioned is the ripping out of previously built roadwork, realigning existing entrances and exit ramps and reworking a half- dozen existing bridges.

Another significant cost factor was the $3 million expended on the archeological excavation of a 4,000-year-old Native American village.  I must be the only person in Bennington County who had been unaware of such a discovery. The recovered artifacts are presently being stored in a Burlington warehouse.  The recovered artifacts will be put on display when the highway’s welcome center is built.

What has further complicated the design (and cost) of the Northern Segment is the fact that in 1999, the Legislature instructed the AOT to make provisions to build a welcome center within the junction of U.S. Route 7 and Vt. Route 279.  The center will be built by the state’s Office of Buildings and General Services and operated by the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce.

The $7 million center was to have been completed at the time of completion of the Northern Segment; not so, if started by next spring, it won’t open until late 2013.

And the “rub” with the proposed welcome center, there is no turnoff lane for northbound travelers coming through the Town of Bennington;  such a lane is too expensive, according to Harris.  Northbound visitors, at the Kocher Drive intersection, will have to turn west onto Route 67, go past Wal-Mart and at Cinema 7, on Northside Drive, get back on eastbound Vt. Route 279 in order to enter the welcome center.  This will be the case until the Southern Segment is built.

The design for the Southern Segment of the bypass is on hold—no funds have been allocated.  If it is ever built, it will have a length of 3.2 miles and connect south U.S. Route 7 (near Fuller Road) heading northeast, to Vt. Route 9.

Its present benefit is that it is on the receiving end for 200,000 cubic meters of earth and rock that had been removed during the excavation of the Northern Segment.  This quantity, according to Harris, would be like filling a regulation football field (100 by 54 yards) 15 stories high;  thank goodness there was a place to put the material.

When the three segments are completed, the Bennington Bypass will have cost approximately $206 million ($56 million for the western, $95 million for the northern and in today’s dollars, $55 million for the southern segments)—funded 80 percent by the federal government and 20 percent by Vermont.  The engineering for the Southern Segment, if funded by the summer of 2012, will take approximately four years to design and get permitted—add another four years to build—if all goes well.

Should we have ever built the bypass? The final price tag is astounding, northbound visitors most likely will never visit the proposed welcome center and others will simply not visit Bennington and motor right on by. To be spending upwards of a quarter-billion dollars for a 10-mile road system to bypass a town of 15,000 residents makes no sense—and we ask why governments are in a fiscal mess?

The 1989 movie “Field of Dreams” has an often-quoted line, “Build it and they will come.”  Let’s hope the line for the Bennington Bypass will not be “build it and they (the visitors) will go—-directly by Bennington.”

 

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  • Jim Mulligan

    “The project had been conceived over 50 years ago (Harris has a newspaper article that dates back to 1926 addressing the bypass)—mainly to “reduce delay, improve safety and decrease congestion” in the Bennington area”

    It calls to mind the Circ Hgway. I suspect that more $s
    have been expended on the project’s planning than the original cost estimate. Are these two projects not akin
    to the President’s forthcoming birthday celebration? And
    we find ourselves but days from the 10th anniversary of 9/11. As long as procrastination and obstruction remain the nation’s two primary industries we are assured of more of the same – costs will continue to soar and employment diminish.

    What level of contribution “How many angels can sit on the head of a pin” has played in our indebtedness and our operating losses [aka Deficits] of $3.6 trillion over the course of 33 consecutive months? Alas here it is August 2nd and the collective sighs of relief that are about to be expelled along the Potomac can be heard around the world accompanied, of course, by the mandatory levels of congratulatory accomplishment.

    One cannot help but rub their eyes viewing the current calculations wherein we find ourselves weighing annual expenditures at one end of the apothecary $cale against decade economie$ at the other end. This is indeed cla$$ic. Would it be fair to call it the Magnifying Method?

    Simply stated our Line of Credit has been increased by $2.4 trillion. The total debt of the federal government did not hit $2.4 trillion until November 1987 and now we are hopeful said amount will sustain our creditors until 2013!?

  • Amelia Silver

    It’s rare that I agree with Mr. Keelan 100% but this time I certainly do. He has hit the nail on the head. What a disaster for Bennington, and for Vermont, to have wasted a tremendous amount of money on a poorly-conceived, poorly-executed, and fruitless project. if it were only the inconvenience of driving through yet another pattern of orange cones late at night for months, I wouldn’t complain. But this is folly and waste on a grand scale. Visitor Center? A travesty!

  • Bob Stannard

    This column reminds me of when I served on the Planning Commission. I received an irate phone call at 7:15 am from a lady who was complaining that the roof of the new shopping center being built adjacent to her property was blocking her view of the mountains.

    I told her the best time to have raised your concerns was during the permitting process; not when they’re putting on the roof.

    • Amelia Silver

      You’re right Bob, but some of us weren’t here when the entire boondoggle began, and have watched in horror as it has unfolded. Every local legislator I spoke with in the past gave lip service to the benefits of the by-pass but none possessed hard facts about the plan nor, interestingly, a burning commitment to seeing it through. Instead there was a passive acceptance of the by-pass as if it were the result of deus ex machina. Good people were asleep at the wheel and behaved as if it was someone else’s job to be vigilant. I include myself and the residents of Bennington County in this indictment, for if not now, when? If not I, who?

  • Jim Mulligan

    PS:

    The following courtesy of the BFP – “A Walmart store in St. Albans could be open for holiday shoppers in 2012, developers say, now that the Vermont Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the retail giant, capping a nearly 20-year battle about whether the discount chain could build a Franklin County outpost.” – brought to mind my comment above.

    “As long as procrastination and obstruction remain the nation’s two primary industries we are assured of more of the same – costs will continue to soar and employment diminish.”

    Eventually some day a learned soul somewhere will qualify
    our GDP which will be looking at the hind-end of our debt
    before year’s end. On August 2nd – we added $238 billion
    – Please, let’s keep that to ourselves.

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