New idea pitched to cut Vergennes truck traffic

VERGENNES — About one truck rolls down Vergennes’ Main Street every minute — a street lined with historic buildings, pedestrian traffic and parking on both sides.
A long-abandoned proposal for a bypass around downtown that would reduce the number of long-haul trucks driving through Vergennes has come back to life, but in a different and potentially much cheaper form. It would continue to allow one-way truck traffic southbound through the city, but send northbound trucks coming up Route 22A on a detour east on Route 17 from Addison to New Haven Junction to reach Route 7, where they would continue north.
Mayor Bill Benton has forwarded to the Agency of Transportation that plan based on an idea pitched by an executive of the firm Toole Design, which is helping the city come up with a Vergennes Downtown-Basin Master Plan.
VTrans is apparently taking the proposal seriously. When Benton and Toole Design’s Bill Schultheisse had a preliminary plan put together, they shared it with the city’s representatives and the county’s senators in Montpelier.
Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, forwarded that draft to VTrans Secretary Chris Cole, and received this response:
“Thank you for the proposal. I’ve forwarded this request to Rich Tetreault, Deputy Secretary of VTrans, who will assemble a multidisciplinary team to evaluate the feasibility of the Mayor’s proposal. We will get back to you once that feasibility evaluation is completed.”
Van Wyck said he was not ready to endorse the plan, given that other towns have yet to be involved in the process, but believed an idea that could relieve the city’s truck-a-minute burden deserved study.
“I took that (response) as positive, beyond that I won’t speculate on the possibility of its approval. I’ll ask some more questions in Montpelier in January,” Van Wyck wrote in an email. “Obviously the towns of Addison, Waltham, New Haven and Ferrisburgh need to weigh in also. I have not specifically endorsed the final outcome yet, since I’m interested in further local input also, though I support the evaluation as a first step.”
Benton said he hopes the idea will merit serious consideration, even if it only removes half of the truck traffic from downtown Vergennes.
“It’s an alternative that I think is a moderate alternative. It doesn’t have to be expensive,” Benton said.  
The central advantage that this plan has compared to past bypass proposals is that it is cheaper. The most recent bypass plan considered in Vergennes called for a new road to split from Route 22A south of the city, run over a new bridge over Otter Creek somewhere near United Technologies Corp., and then rejoin Route 22A near Route 7.
And the problem with Route 17 between Routes 22A and 7 has always been that the existing bridge over Otter Creek is not wide enough to handle two tractor-trailer units.
This new plan, which was supported by a 6-1 council vote on Dec. 15, requires neither a new span nor work on the existing span. It reads: “The VT Route 17 bridge over Otter Creek will not experience an increase in two way truck traffic.”
Benton’s proposal states that truck traffic on Vergennes’ Main Street, which is Route 22A through the city, “has increased exponentially over the past 20 years as a result of demand for goods in Chittenden County,” and “According to public safety officials, numerous truck traffic events have occurred on Main Street, particularly on the northerly route where the grade is 10 percent which exceeds the recommended 7 percent grade.” 
The proposal also noted, “The Truck Network Improvement Study commissioned by VTrans states ‘large trucks should avoid congested and historic urban areas that have on-street parking and pedestrian and bicycle traffic.’”   
The bypass would add five miles to what is a 300-mile round trip from Albany, N.Y., to Burlington, a roughly 1.7 percent increase.
A 2012 Addison Country Regional Planning Commission traffic study cited by the proposal concluded that about 64 trucks per hour roll through Vergennes, about one per minute.
Potential benefits of reducing truck traffic include, the proposal states:
•  Avoidance of the 10 percent grade on the east side of Otter Creek by limiting northbound trucks. “Many have to stop and back down due to the grade or cannot make the hill in winter conditions posing a safety hazard,” the proposal states.
•  Allowing the city to install traffic lights at the intersection nearest the Otter Creek bridge, something not now possible because trucks cannot be stopped on the grade there. The proposal states “rerouting of northbound truck traffic would remove the single largest impediment” to signalizing that intersection and making it more pedestrian-friendly.
•  Bicyclist safety on what is a Champlain Bikeway.
•  Avoidance of potential HazMat spills in a populated area.
•  Aiding downtown restaurants and businesses affected by heavy truck traffic.
•  Protecting property owners’ and residents’ investments in the downtown, including more than $240,000 in direct grants and $740,000 in tax credits for historic downtown buildings and $2 million in public and private funds for the Vergennes Opera House.
For enforcement, the proposal calls for creating a weight limit on northbound traffic. Trucks making deliveries to the city could apply for permits, it states.
Benton said the credit for the idea actually goes to a family member of Toole Design’s Schultheisse. During a late-September weekend, Toole Design helped organize walks and traffic-calming demonstrations on Main Street in the basin, and Benton and Schultheisse, a Washington, D.C., native with family in Vermont, found themselves paired up.
“We had a long talk walking around town on a Friday night. We talked about the intersection of Macdonough Drive and South Water and Main and so on. And we’re walking up and down the hill, and he’s going, ‘Jesus, these trucks, they’re just awful. What’s the situation?’” Benton said. “I said we’ve been trying to do something with trucks for 20 years, but you’re not going to build a bypass today because it’s too expensive.”
They talked about Route 17 as a bypass, but Benton told Schultheisse it had never gained any traction.
The next day Schultheisse and Benton met again, and Schultheisse said he had talked with his father during the previous evening and he came up the truck-only, one-way bypass idea.
“That way Route 17, and the bridge over Otter Creek, wouldn’t bear two-way truck traffic,” Benton said. “And it would reduce the truck traffic by 50 percent. And I said that’s a pretty amazing idea.”
After further research, including help from Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley, Alderman and former city manager Renny Perry, and Schultheisse, Benton sent a draft to the lawmakers and the ball started rolling.
How far it will roll, Benton can’t say at this point.
“This may not go anywhere,” Benton said. “But like I told Mel, if you don’t try, nothing’s going to happen.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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