Middlebury eyes Rt. 7 intersection

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury officials believe the answer to getting any speedy, substantial improvements to the intersection of Route 7 North and Exchange Street might lie in the community offering to take on some of the costs of that state project.
The Middlebury selectboard last week discussed the concept of the town absorbing 25 percent of the debt service on a bond that would be floated to establish a roundabout at Exchange Street/Route 7. The intersection has become increasingly dangerous for vehicles seeking to merge onto Route 7 amid oncoming vehicles screaming around a low-visibility bend to the north.
It was in 2004 that the Middlebury selectboard unanimously backed the idea of putting in a roundabout at that location, seeing it as a means of safely slowing traffic without necessarily bringing it to a full stop. The proposed intersection upgrade ranks second on the Addison County Regional Planning Commission’s capital program “wish list,” behind a project to get heavy truck traffic off Route 22A in Vergennes.
But the state has, in recent years, been using its transportation dollars to chop away at a backlog of existing projects in the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) pipeline. As a result, the Exchange Street/Route 7 proposal has not moved into the state’s capital construction list — in spite of being a regional priority.
Officials are pushing for an intersection upgrade for economic development as well as safety reasons.
Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington noted there are currently 45 businesses on Exchange Street in an industrial park.
When the industrial park was expanded in 1997, the state did an evaluation of the Exchange Street/Route 7 intersection. Act 250 officials said at that time “that at some future time, there could be a requirement that the applicant of the ‘next developed lot’ be responsible for fixing (this intersection).”
The officials never set a number that would require the next applicant to pay for fixing the intersection — possibly scaring a potential business away. Dunnington noted the state has not specifically defined the proverbial “straw that breaks the camel’s back” in the industrial park, but it is a cause for concern.
“It is only a matter of when a business might come that this might become a big problem, for that one,” Dunnington said. “That would be a tragedy.”
Addison County Economic Development Corp. Director Robin Scheu agreed.
“The resolution shouldn’t be that any one business should have to pay for those improvements,” she said.
Dunnington acknowledged the long list of other projects VTrans is trying to address and believes the Exchange Street/Route 7 intersection upgrades will not likely occur soon without some other initiative.
With that in mind, Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger presented selectmen with the option of pitching a bond issue that would see the town pay back around 25 percent of debt service of the intersection project, with the state paying the remaining 75 percent. Under this scenario, the town would end up paying $303,672 (or $15,184 per year) over the course of a 20-year bond, with the state picking up the remaining $911,016.
Finger stressed that Middlebury is under no obligation to offer the state such a deal. But he added it might be time for the town to think outside of the box — as it did in construction of the Cross Street Bridge — to get the intersection work done sooner, rather than later. He theorized it might motivate the state to take on the intersection more quickly if the town of Middlebury “were in some way a financial contributor to do this project.”
Dunnington noted such a scenario worked several year ago when the town floated a $200,000 bond to complete the Elm Street underpass.
“It tends to leverage VTrans money,” he said.
“There  is some precedent,” Finger added.
Selectboard members are intrigued by the idea.
“It does seem to be consistent with the tendency of government to try to do things locally, where the state money is used more efficiently,” said Selectman Victor Nuovo. “I think this warrants proactive pursuit.”
Selectman Dean George said it will be important to publicize the Exchange Street/Route 7 intersection as a major safety concern — one with local and regional implications.
“We should be marching up (to Montpelier) asking for a meeting with the House and Senate Transportation committees — they are always looking for opportunities to pay for something without commitments of huge state dollars from year to year,” George said. “This basically solves that problem.”
Sue Minter, deputy secretary of VTrans, said the agency is always looking for creative ways to finance projects. But she stressed that Middlebury should:
•  Think carefully about offering to take on a cost-share for the Exchange Street/Route 7 intersection because roundabouts qualify for 100-percent federal funding. Capital projects are usually 80 percent federal and 10 percent each state and local, Minter said.
•  Continue efforts to get on the state’s capital program list, which would pave the way for initial scoping, design and permitting of the work so that it is ready to go when the money is available. Minter believes there will be some slots available on the capital program list in the fiscal year 2013 budget.
•  Consider taking on management of the project at the local level.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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