Vergennes residents sound off about truck traffic
VERGENNES — As might be expected, the topic of up to 800 tractor-trailer trucks rolling through downtown Vergennes dominated a Monday Vermont Transportation Board public hearing in Vergennes on “Vermont’s Transportation Future,” including passenger rail expansion, railroad safety and other railway issues as well as truck traffic.
About 30 local citizens attended the hearing at the Bixby Library in Vergennes, the first of seven planned around the state by the Vermont Transportation Board to take testimony on railroad and truck issues.
The board will take that testimony and prepare a report, including recommendations based on the testimony, for Vermont Agency of Transportation leaders and the heads of the Vermont Senate and House Committees on Transportation.
“They listen,” transportation board executive secretary John Zicconi told the gathering. “The exercise we do tonight is not in vain.”
The Vermont Transportation Board has a variety of duties. By statute, it does not make policy, but must hold “public hearings on matters of public interest” and report back to VTrans officials and lawmakers.
After Monday, board officials — acting chairman David Coen and member Faith Terry, both former Vergennes residents, attended along with Zicconi — can report that Vergennes residents are fed up with trucks.
“It’s time for the agency to respect our demands to get truck traffic out of Vergennes,” said Andrew Fritz of Vergennes, one of many who addressed the issue.
Truck traffic was one of five topics discussed, including Passenger Rail Expansion, Railroads as Neighbors, Railside Development and Railside Safety.
Trucks came up after Passenger Rail Expansion, which residents favored, and Railroads as Neighbors, about which citizens had some gripes.
Zicconi presented an estimate that the current level of 52 million tons of freight carried annually by Vermont trains is expected to increase to 70 million tons by 2035. But, he said, the amount of truck freight is also expected to rise.
“I don’t want to give anyone the impression … we will have fewer trucks,” he said.
A sore point about trucks in Vergennes was that a number of bypass proposals have been studied over the years, but never acted upon, while according to the transportation board the state is investing $100 million in upgrading tracks between Rutland and Burlington alone.
Several in attendance asked why such an investment was being made in railroads instead of helping communities like Vergennes burdened by truck traffic.
“It’s been studied for at least 20 years,” said Deborah Emerson of Vergennes. “Is it not important to deal with that truck traffic?”
Peter Markowski of Ferrisburgh said some of those studies identified bypasses that could work.
“I really feel this area is being put upon again,” said Markowski. “Truck traffic deserves priority.”
Others objected to the VTrans decision a number of years ago to change a designation for Route 22A, which is Main Street in Vergennes, to allow larger trucks to use it. The steep hill northbound from the bridge over Otter Creek and the city’s dense population did not meet the agency’s standards for such a designation, said David Austin of Vergennes.
“When that decision occurred, the agency overlooked its own criteria,” Austin said.
Main Street inn owner Sue Walsh described truck traffic as “the No. 1 complaint we have,” and Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said in addition to the dangers to pedestrians and motorists from the truck traffic, a bad accident involving a truck carrying flammable or other hazardous materials “could be catastrophic.”
Vergennes Planning Commission Chairman Shannon Haggett pointed out the Agency of Commerce and Community Development named the city’s center as a “Designated Downtown,” which includes support for local efforts to restore historic buildings, improve walkability and spark economic development, while the VTrans decision to designate Route 22A as a truck route through the city center undermines that designation.
“The goals of these two things are at odds with one another,” Haggett said.
Aldermen Jeff Fritz read a statement from Mayor Bill Benton (see related story) that drew loud applause from almost all in the room (see related article for full text). Benton said the trucks create “noise, vibration, noxious odors and dangers to pedestrians and bicyclists” and carry “hazardous materials.”
Benton cited VTrans’ own Truck Network Improvement Study, which states, “large trucks should avoid congested and historic urban areas that have on-street parking and pedestrian and bicycle traffic,” and he wrote, “The City of Vergennes is the poster child for why trucks should not be traveling in downtowns.”
Benton said he “would ask that the Vermont Transportation Board consider our plight in preparing for future transportation needs. We support addressing our problems as part of a larger transportation plan that benefits everyone.”
There was some discussion of the one-way bypass Benton has proposed, in which northbound through truck traffic could go east on Route 17 through Addison and New Haven to Route 7 and then north on Route 7 from there, while southbound traffic would still go through the city. Selectboards in Addison, New Haven and Ferrisburgh oppose that plan.
Addison resident and Route 17 homeowner Russ Kingsley was not impressed with that solution.
“Basically you taking a problem and putting it on the homeowners and taxpayers somewhere else,” Kinsgley said.
Adding passenger rail from Rutland to Burlington, with stops in Middlebury and Vergennes, found a friendlier reception. Zicconi said most tracks in the corridor had already been improved, and once the major rail bridge rebuild in Middlebury was completed the project could be done in 2020 or 2021, linking with existing service from Rutland south to New York City.
Austin said a more direct connection with New York would benefit Vermont.
“There are 8 million people in the city. They like to leave on the weekend,” he said.
Zicconi said the historic Vergennes station that was moved to the VTrans park-and-ride lot nearby in Ferrisburgh is intended to serve as the city-area stop, while the former Burlington station would probably be used again; both those ideas were supported.
Answering Harold Strassner of Middlebury, who noted parking was a problem near the previous station at the edge of the Marble Works complex, Zicconi said it had not been determined where a station would be placed in Middlebury.
Zicconi said he expected the passenger train to leave Rutland early, about 8 a.m., and be in Middlebury and Vergennes within a little more than an hour on the upgraded tracks and make one round trip daily. He cautioned residents not to expect “commuter rail service,” at least not immediately.
“This rail is specifically about connecting Vermont with places south of here,” Zicconi said.
Statewide ridership has grown from 57,000 a year to 103,000 between 2005 and 2016, Zicconi said. Future ridership projections vary once upgrades are completed on the lines that run on Vermont’s east and west sides, but range from roughly 388,000 to 784,000 by 2035.
RAILROADS AS NEIGHBORS
In discussing this topic, residents who live near tracks said some engineers were more enthusiastic than others in sounding warning signals as their trains approached crossings.
Walsh said it would be helpful if the companies could “standardize” the at times “excessive” noise, and Ferrisburgh’s Gerianne Smart agreed engineers could be “inconsistent with tooting.”
Smart and Ferrisburgh’s Liz Markowski agreed the new tracks were quieter.
Answering a question about scheduling trains during nighttime hours, Zicconi said there are “no restrictions on hours” of operation, and that while trains are not often scheduled at night, the rail business can be unpredictable and they can run late.
Derek Cohen of Waltham said if transportation and rail officials are looking for appropriately zoned land to expand rail businesses or attract related businesses they should contact local development corporations as “a likely place to start.”
Vergennes planner Cheryl Brinkman added local and regional planning commissions would also have transportation plans that could help businesspersons and state officials identify potential sites.
Two safety issues stood out. One was what trains carry. Zicconi said the two Vermont rail companies are not carrying the sort of Bakken crude oil that burned and badly damaged a Quebec town after a 2013 derailment, but that the firms do not typically reveal what they carry due to competitive reasons.
Some attendees said the information should be available.
“We have the right to know what’s coming across our tracks,” Cohen said.
Zicconi said all railroad crossings for the planned passenger service would have at least lights, and all would be evaluated for whether they required gates or lights.
Some, including Ferrisburgh resident Garrit Smits, said physical barriers “at every single crossing” would be safer.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].