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Editorial: Does VTrans take advantage of towns’ desire to ‘get-along’

Here’s a statement that many town selectboards may have trouble accepting: The Vermont Agency of Transportation can make decisions that are not in the best interests of a community and presses its interests over theirs.
The trouble selectboards, and community members, have is not in recognizing the hardships asked of their town, but in being all too willing to go along with the decision because the cultural environment is to “work it out,” to reach resolution. We are, after all, rural folk who are resilient and accustomed to hardship. We have broad shoulders, we tell ourselves proudly, and can bear the burden if need be, even if it is to our own detriment.
The willingness to work things out should, of course, be applauded, as should the willingness to compromise. But compromise implies a two-way street, and all too often the compromises reached strongly favor the state at the expense of the community.
This Monday in Vergennes, the Vermont Transportation Board held the first of seven hearings to listen to the public’s concerns with transportation issues, particularly focusing on truck traffic and railroad issues. The board’s role is to listen to the public’s concerns and use that feedback to develop better policy and practices. It’s a commendable process that, if done well, could prompt significant change in current practices.
We say that using Vergennes’ struggle to deal with its intolerable truck traffic on Route 22A, which is also its Main Street, as a case in point.
About 30 area residents came to Monday’s hearing to once again complain about the burden truck traffic puts on city life as more than 800 trucks shake, rattle and roll through the Little City’s downtown each day.
“It’s time for the agency to respect our demands to get truck traffic out of Vergennes,” said Vergennes resident Andrew Fritz, one of many locals who pressed the issue.
“It’s been studied for at least 20 years,” added resident Deborah Emerson. “Is it not important to deal with that truck traffic.”
Apparently not.
Back in 1995, a comprehensive analysis studying traffic alternatives (a bypass) around the Little City’s downtown was undertaken. The primary purpose of the analysis was to figure out a way to divert the “majority of the 700 heavy trucks which pass through the downtown each day.” Much work went into the analysis with many good ideas presented, but little transpired.
Five years later, even though VTrans was aware that truck traffic was a major concern for the city, the agency named Route 22A through the downtown as a “designated truck route and part of the Vermont Truck Network.” The designation would make the truck-to-car ratio on that stretch of road through the city almost double the statewide average for that class of roadway, while also violating the agency’s own standards for such a designation.
Mayor Bill Benton brought up those uncomfortable facts in a letter read at Monday’s meeting, emphasizing the point that over the past 20 years of discussion nothing has been done to address the problem.
“Studies have been undertaken with no concrete efforts at instituting a solution… The noise, vibration, noxious odors and dangers to pedestrians and bicyclists are well known. Many of the trucks carry hazardous materials. We actually do know what would happen if a compressed natural gas truck tipped on its side and vented to a course of ignition. May God forbid that ever happen…The Truck Network Improvement Study, undertaken by VTrans, states ‘large trucks should avoid congested and historic urban areas that have on-street parking and pedestrian and bicycle traffic….” and yet, the AOT made its designation in 2000 despite such obvious problems that would lead to significant hardship for the downtown and city residents.
For its part, Vergennes has complained, but dutifully accepted its fate, shouldered its burden and hoped for an eventual resolution.
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But questions should be asked, and patterns observed. Why would the state agency help conduct a study in 1995 looking to alleviate truck traffic in downtown Vergennes, then later designate Route 22A a preferred truck route? Why would it again participate in another traffic study in 2001 (through the Addison County Regional Planning Commission) with significant community involvements and elaborate plans, but again take no action to address the fundamental issue of truck traffic through the heart of the Little City?
Why after 21 years has no plan been adopted and action taken?
Perhaps because the agency thinks it is doing its job by appeasing community unrest through meetings and studies, while knowing no easy solution will be available and betting the issue will be kicked down the road for a few more years. Cynical? Indeed, but it is difficult to fathom another explanation. It is not, after all, an unsolvable problem. A bypass route has been developed. If it is too expensive to carry out, then work on Plan B, which could be, as Benton suggested, running northbound traffic (coming from the south) over to Route 17 to Route 7 (Addison to New Haven Junction), then north on Route 7 as a one-way route. Southbound traffic could flow through the city on Route 22A, effectively cutting the 800-trucks each day in half. That spreads the burden regionally with minimum cost, until a better solution can be found.
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Which brings us back to Monday’s public hearing. The significant change that could come out of these seven hearings being held by the Vermont Transportation Board could be understanding the Agency’s pattern of what is sometimes purposeful delay through studies, obfuscation, a penchant for avoiding  tough questions and a failure to get community projects resolved.
There are, of course, success stories within VTrans. Everyone works well in a crisis, and VTrans performed well rebuilding roads and bridges in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene. A downtown revitalization project in Barre is also being hailed as a success, much of it centered around the remaking of its downtown roads and bridges.
But how it is that other projects languish so long with delay, studies after studies and more inaction? What is at the heart of that inability to decide on a resolution that works best for the community? Is it perhaps that what works best for the community (on certain non-critical projects) is not what the agency deems as working best for the state; and when that is the case, the project stalls? Perhaps the Vermont Transportation Board could ask that of the citizens it encounters in these next six public hearings, and gauge the public’s response. We want to remain open-minded, but doubt Vergennes is the outlier.
Angelo S. Lynn

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