As Vergennes works on truck bypass, area towns question proposal

VERGENNES — With a Town Meeting Day vote set in Vergennes to see whether city residents would support a measure to re-route half the truck traffic that rolls through their downtown, selectboards of the towns that would host those trucks are expressing early opposition.
The Vergennes City Council in December backed a measure asking the Agency of Transportation to explore re-routing northbound truck traffic on Route 22A. Instead it would direct trucks on to Route 17 in Addison and send them eastbound through Waltham to New Haven Junction, where they would continue north on Route 7 through New Haven, Waltham and Ferrisburgh toward Chittenden County.
Currently, trucks — 800 a day — head north on Route 22A through Vergennes to meet Route 7 in Ferrisburgh just north of the city.
Vergennes Mayor Bill Benton backs studying the proposal for reasons that include pedestrian safety, the integrity of historic structures in downtown Vergennes, avoidance of hazardous material spills in a crowded area, enhancing the atmosphere in the downtown, allowing the city to put in traffic signals at a busy intersection near the bridge over Otter Creek, and the difficulty trucks have negotiating the steep slope entering downtown from the bridge.
Benton met with VTrans Deputy Commissioner Richard Tetreault and Planning and Research Director Joe Segale, plus Addison County Regional Planning Executive Director Adam Lougee, at the city police station on Jan. 28 to go over those issues.
No immediate action is expected, especially with the March 1 vote on tap.
“They read the proposal. They got it. They know the concerns,” Benton said.
In the meantime, the preliminary proposal has received a frosty reception elsewhere.
At a January Ferrisburgh selectboard meeting, two of four board members in attendance stated opposition, and the other two adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
Selectmen Jim Warden and Jim Benoit said the intersections of Route 7 with New Haven Road and Monkton Road would be dangerous with the extra trucks, and the fact that trucks carrying hazardous materials would have to stop at the railroad tracks outside Vergennes would back up traffic. Warden called the proposal “a nightmare.”
New Haven selectmen in early January agreed to write a letter opposing the proposal. That document is currently under legal review and unavailable, according to town officials.
Selectboard Chairwoman Kathy Barrett said this week selectboard members are concerned about the narrow and deteriorating Route 17 bridge over Otter Creek near the fairgrounds; the intersection of Routes 17 and 7, where trucks pulling out would obstruct traffic and pose a hazard; and in general the curves and hills on Route 17.
On Feb. 2, the Addison selectboard voted “to either add our name or copy the (New Haven) transportation letter regarding Vergennes and the Route 17 bypass.” Board members also reviewed at their January meeting a letter written by Addison residents Jeff Nelson and Paul Mahan and published in the Independent raising a number of concerns with the proposal, notably including:
• The difficulty trucks driving north on Route 22A would have turning onto Route 17 without blocking traffic and creating a hazard.
• The steep grades along Route 17 East, which they wrote “equal or exceed the 10 percent grade” in Vergennes near the bridge.
• The condition of the Route 17 bridge over Otter Creek Bridge, and its narrowness, which they said would pose a hazard to oncoming traffic.  
• The danger posed by curves, intersections (including with Hallock Road in New Haven), and areas with limited sight distances on Route 17.
• The impacts to the Addison County Fair and Field Days and other events at that site.   
• The problems at the intersection of Routes 17 and 7.
• The fact that Route 22A has been designated and improved as a truck route.
Benton, who said this week that VTrans officials told him 80 trucks per day now use Route 17, acknowledged many of those concerns in a response to that letter, also published in the Independent. 
“This proposal will need to meet local and state criteria and safety and technical transportation requirements. Certainly, there are drawbacks concerning intersections, grades and bridge adequacy, but this route has served thousands of trucks over decades without serious incident,” he wrote.
“Important issues will have to be dealt with according to current transportation specifications by VTrans. However, this is only a one-way truck route. The costs of these necessary upgrades should be considerably less than other alternatives.”
Benton urged other communities to consider sharing some of the 800-truck-per-day burden that Vergennes now shoulders alone.
“The city of Vergennes is not asking for a two-way bypass that shunts all truck traffic through Addison, Waltham and New Haven,” he wrote. “It is very important to note that we are willing to host our fair share of trucks. Supporting our proposal are numerous studies over a period of 20 years that conclude that truck traffic in downtown Vergennes is unsafe, has noxious effects and is damaging to the local economy.”
If the proposal ever becomes a reality, it will not be soon: Benton said he was told if everything went perfectly, a three-to-five year timetable was possible.
There is precedent for such a bypass. Benton said he knew of one near Morrisville, but Tetreault and Segale said in fact another one that routed trucks around Newport through Coventry was actually more similar.
“They said it’s essentially on a different state route, and it works,” Benton said.
The VTrans officials also told Benton that Vergennes needed backing, and made no promises when they met with him last month. They had seen the Nelson/Mahan letter, Benton said, and knew not all would be smooth sailing.
“They said you’re going to need to garner some support, and you’re going to need to get on a schedule somehow if this is going to work at all, and we would obviously need to do a lot more research,” Benton said. “There was nothing definitive coming out of it.”
Benton said the next step would be to wait and see how Vergennes residents felt, and if that goes well at some point he will also sit down with local selectboards and try to present a fuller, two-sided picture.
Benton was asked if he thought before then it would be helpful if other towns’ officials spent 15 minutes on the city’s Main Street.
“That would be a good start, for sure. It was pretty ironic. We were having our meeting in the police station, and the windows were all closed and the doors were all closed, and Joe (Segale) goes, ‘God, there are a lot of trucks going by here,’” Benton said. “Yeah, this is what it’s about.” 

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