Residents demand fewer trucks through Vergennes

VERGENNES — About 70 residents and officials from Vergennes and neighboring towns on Wednesday weighed in on potential ways to ease the burden Vergennes faces from the 700 trucks, including 362 semis, that rumble through its downtown every day — the highest totals in the state.
Attendees brought a familiar list of complaints about the trucks: They are noisy, dangerous and harmful to the downtown’s historic buildings and economic prospects. 
Listening were the people who since June have been studying the issue — a task force including officials from the Agency of Transportation (VTrans), the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, and Stantec Consulting Services, a traffic design and engineering firm.
They offered some hope for results this time around after earlier bypass studies, one in the mid-1990s and one in the early 2000s, went nowhere.
“The next 10 years of meetings could be moving the project forward,” said Stantec traffic engineer Rick Bryant. 
The task force will make a recommendation for a possible solution out of a menu of three options. It will go to the regional planning commission’s Transportation Advisory Committee, which will in turn make a final recommendation to VTrans.
Those options are as familiar as the complaints, and two have been on the table for decades.
Most attending the meeting appeared to favor the option of a bypass that would take trucks from Route 22A through mostly undeveloped land in northern Vergennes. A 1995 study backed that route.
That bypass would, heading northward, leave 22A west of Vergennes, run just north of the Otter Creek Mobile Home Park and Northlands Job Corps, go over a new bridge over Otter Creek, and rejoin 22A east of Vergennes. During the meeting Stantec traffic engineer Rick Bryant spitballed its cost at $50 million. 
Another option, according to a handout, would allow Route 22A to “continue to serve as a truck route with modifications and traffic controls within Vergennes” intended to make it safer for cyclists and pedestrians and allow for “smoother, quieter truck operations.” 
Tactics could include building curbs out to narrow roads, shortening crosswalks, shielding parking spaces, adding bike lanes, adding more signs, installing speed bumps and enhancing use of rail freight. 
Several at the meeting, including Vergennes Alderman David Austin and Friends of the Vergennes Opera House President Gerianne Smart, said some of these tactics should be used immediately while the city waits for a long-term solution.
Bryant said the task force could make a recommendation that would “mix and match” the three options being studied. 
The third option, originally proposed about three years ago by former Vergennes Mayor Bill Benton, would reroute northbound trucks along Route 17 through Addison and New Haven to Route 7 in New Haven Junction and then north along Route 7, while southbound trucks would still go through Vergennes. 
One of Benton’s central points was that a partial bypass would more fairly share the burden of the trucks among the communities in the area. He also noted that northbound trucks would avoid the problematic Main Street hill next to Otter Creek. Many trucks stall out there or get stuck there in the wintertime. 
Officials acknowledge Route 17 would need work to make it safer due to issues that include sharp curves at certain points, limited views at intersections, and narrow lanes. Others at the meeting also cited the steep Route 7 hill leaving New Haven Junction and the possibility of traffic backups at the railroad crossings there and outside of Vergennes in Ferrisburgh. 
New Haven Selectman Jim Walsh noted at the meeting that the New Haven and Addison selectboards unanimously oppose this route due to those concerns, and the Ferrisburgh board is on record as also opposing that option.
Benton’s proposal, mixed reviews or not, led to a renewed focus on the truck issue and ultimately to the task force and at least some hope of state action on a solution, if not an immediate one. VTrans official Joe Segale said a bypass recommendation would, if acted upon, be many years away. 
A comment from Wednesday’s meeting moderator, Cindy Cook, was among the most hopeful. First, former resident and current downtown property owner Faith Terry said she and many others are frustrated that years of discussion and meetings have failed to produce action. 
“Clearly the community feels strongly about the issue. Many of the people in this room have been sitting in meetings for 27 years,” Terry said. “Vergennes has been at it a long time.”
Cook agreed that the process would still take years, but that if all the communities agreed on the in-town bypass option, which apparently they did not in 1995, VTrans would take them more seriously this time. 
“If you have general agreement you are in a powerful place,” Cook said. “My sense is you might have that this time.”
Austin asked local Vermont House members present how likely it was a bypass would result from the current process. 
Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes; Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh; and Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, echoed Cook: The communities involved and their residents would have to present a united front and a compelling case if they were to successfully lobby state officials.
Lanpher called bypass funding “highly unlikely,” but suggested emphasizing that a bypass through northwestern Vergennes would open up state- and privately owned land there for economic development as well as enhance the downtown’s prospects. Essentially, she said, the state would want to see a return on its investment. 
“This community wants action,” Lanpher said. “We’re going to figure out what we want. We might be able to get what we want.”
Van Wyck said federal money as well as state cash would help support the project, and he pointed out the state had funded a bypass in Morrisville, where the situation was less dire. 
“If Morrisville can get money … Vergennes can get money,” Van Wyck said. 
Smith also emphasized presenting a united front to Montpelier. 
“Once you get behind a project you have a much better chance,” Smith said.
Bryant said an important goal of the meeting was to listen to concerns and ideas. It was clear where Vergennes residents stood on the trucks. At one point VTrans’ Segale asked if truck noise was a problem.
Fifty people chorused, “Yes,” and one said it began at 4 a.m.
Residents also spoke about walking and biking while big trucks loomed. One said many students walk to city schools. 
“I see those kids try to cross the street, and it is scary,” she said.
Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel talked about pedestrian safety and also about trucks carrying hazardous materials, particularly explosive compressed natural gas.
“If we have something happen downtown with a truck carrying flammable liquids we’ve got a real problem,” Merkel said. 
Some from Vergennes were wary that a bypass would lure drivers out of downtown, but Bryant said it would be longer and slower and he was confident that only trucks directed to use it would do so. 
It was also clear where New Haven and Addison stood on Route 17. Several people joined Walsh in speaking against the route, listing a series of concerns.
“Is it safe to say Route 17 won’t be considered?” asked one New Haven resident late in the two-hour meeting.
Cook replied: “Route 17 will be very carefully studied.”
Also near the meeting’s end a Vergennes resident summed up both the larger problem and the feelings of many. He said most of the trucks were headed to big-box stores in Williston and provided nothing but harm to the city on their route. 
“It feels like we’re being dumped on, and that doesn’t feel right,” he said. “It’s clearly a problem. We need something done.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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