VTrans, planners revive idea of Vergennes truck bypass
VERGENNES — Once again the possibility is alive of a bypass that would send truck traffic around downtown Vergennes, although local and state officials say one is not likely to be built for at least 30 years.
At a Nov. 15 meeting in Middlebury of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission’s Transportation Advisory Committee, or TAC, Vermont Agency of Transportation officials agreed to work with regional planners to study city bypass options, with a recommendation probably to be made by the end of 2018.
That pledge was made after TAC members voted unanimously in support of a bypass to provide relief for Vergennes. The city, because it sits on Route 22A — the major truck route on the state’s western corridor — sees more than 800 trucks rumble along its Main Street every day.
At least half of those trucks, according to VTrans director of policy, planning and research Joe Segale, are large ones going through downtown Vergennes while headed somewhere else.
Segale, who attended the meeting, said no other small Vermont community deals with a similar volume. But, he added, before VTrans officials would agree again to look at a bypass — earlier studies were done in 1995 and 2002 — they wanted to be sure that dealing with Vergennes’ problem had countywide support.
“Vergennes has got a lot more trucks, a lot more large trucks, than those other towns. There is no doubt we have recognized it as an issue for a long time,” Segale said. “We just felt it was important the region was on board with it as an issue.”
Segale mentioned at the meeting a 30-year estimate for a possible bypass — assuming a study backs one, city and regional support remains firm, and funding is feasible. That timetable is far from set in stone, however.
“We were talking about that afterwards,” Segale said. “It really just comes from our gut feeling, our experience with other bypass-type projects around the state. Thirty years just seems like what they take, and it might take longer than that. It depends on how big and complicated (it is), and whether there is sustained support over all those years.”
Those earlier studies both supported a route that would leave Route 22A at the city’s west end, go through the lightly populated northern portion of the city, cross Otter Creek on a new bridge, and rejoin Route 22A near its intersection with Route 7. The studies referred to it as “the westerly bypass.”
VTrans officials never put the westerly bypass on its to-do list. But last week’s TAC vote gives the bypass a high local priority because the committee plays a central role in setting the countywide transportation agenda.
Vergennes Mayor Michael Daniels was pleased with the vote and the support of the TAC and selectboard members from New Haven and Addison, who had attended in part to oppose another bypass plan, one that would have sent northbound trucks through their towns on Route 17.
“That (vote) did give these gentlemen from the state the direction of going forward and doing a study and of pursuing a bypass,” Daniels said. “I think it’s very positive.”
But Segale said he could not simply ignore the Route 17 solution, which would add 5 miles for trucks driving north from Addison Four Corners to the intersection of Routes 22A and 7 in Ferrisburgh, just outside Vergennes.
“Route 17 is kind of a logical alternative. Before any federal money is spent you have to look at the reasonable alternatives. So what would it take to upgrade 17? There are legitimate concerns about 17 the way it’s currently configured. What would it take to take to safely upgrade 17 to accommodate trucks,” Segale said. “That still may not be acceptable to the towns, even if the road was modified.”
New Haven, Addison and Ferrisburgh selectboards went on record as opposing a preliminary plan proposed by former Vergennes Mayor Bill Benton suggesting that northbound through trucks could be routed along Route 17 and then north on Route 7.
The New Haven selectboard cited a number of safety issues in a letter to VTrans calling the plan “lunacy,” and the Addison selectboard cited the New Haven letter to VTrans in stating its opposition.
But representatives from those towns joined in support of a new bypass study last week, said regional planning commission Executive Director Adam Lougee.
“Everyone acknowledged Vergennes has a truck problem. What was interesting to me in the presentation is the number of heavy trucks going through Vergennes is significantly more than the number of heavy trucks going through a lot of the other villages that you hear about with a truck problem,” said Lougee, citing Woodstock, Brandon and Pittsford as examples.
Lougee said TAC committee members were most impressed by the westerly bypass supported by the 1995 and 2002 studies. But he said he understood VTrans and regional planners would have to re-evaluate all the alternatives.
“It makes sense to do a study of all the options,” Lougee said. “So that can be a preferred option of the TAC, but we’re going to look at a number of different options for a study.”
Segale pledged the westerly bypass would get a long, hard look.
“It will be a major focus of the study, as well as looking at the other alternative routes,” he said.
The study will also look into a potential bypass’s appearance. Earlier studies, for example, showed examples of the westerly bypass as a city street, a parkway and a boulevard.
“It wasn’t necessarily a conventional bypass,” Segale said. “I think there’s an opportunity to explore some of those ideas a little bit more in this study.”
Segale also noted the early 1990s vote in Vergennes in support of a bypass, and said the study would make sure city residents still supported a bypass, as well as pursue other avenues.
“Is that still the case now?” he said. “I think we need to update the feasibility of it. Is it permittable? Are there different kinds of design options depending on what they might cost?”
Segale said VTrans would also like to pin down how many trucks are locally bound, when they are going through the city, and where they are headed.
“Part of this study is looking at what is the real distribution through the day, on a weekday vs. a weekend. And also everybody sort of intuitively feels like it’s truck trips going through to Chittenden County. That may or may not be true,” Segale said. “They might be going to other places as well, including places in Addison County. I’d like to get a better understanding of what the destinations are for the trucks.”
Results should be forthcoming by the end of 2018.
“I think a year is reasonable. It might take less than that … to have some sort of recommendation where to go, what are the next steps, is a bypass really feasible,” Segale said.
Regardless of the timetable, city officials are happy that VTrans has reconsidered and is moving forward on a study again, whether or not a bypass will be built in their lifetimes.
City Manager Mel Hawley described his understanding of VTrans’ previous stand on a bypass.
“We were told that a bypass would occur sometime between 50 years and never,” Hawley said.
Daniels said he had heard reassuring words about a bypass from Morristown community development coordinator Tricia Follert, who reported that town’s downtown did not suffer from diverting traffic after construction of a Route 100 bypass there.
“She said she was actually pleasantly surprised, it got better,” Daniels said. “It took the trucks and traffic passing through that didn’t want to stop out of the mainstream, and it allowed other ones that did want to come in to spend more time and enjoy the time they spent, and to have more activities and functions in the downtown area.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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