Study, citizens back a truck bypass around Vergennes

VERGENNES — Vergennes and its neighbors have seen close votes recently.
The latest Addison Northwest School District budget passed in March by six votes, and it wasn’t too long ago a city mayor’s race ended with a margin of three. Both went through recounts.
But no recounts were needed on Tuesday at the Vergennes Opera House, where about 100 residents of Vergennes and surrounding towns gathered. They were there to learn the results of a study conducted by traffic engineers on what could be done with the 800 trucks a day, 500 of them big rigs, that rumble through the city’s downtown.
Virtually everyone present expressed a preference for sending trucks around Vergennes on a new road and bridge north of the city.
The study, authored by South Burlington engineering firm Stantec, evaluated three choices to soften the trucks’ impact, and one proved to be a unanimous favorite — even to those conducting the study.
The alternatives were evaluated on criteria that included the costs of construction, land and right-of-way purchasing, and design and permitting; benefits to Vergennes and impacts and benefits to other areas, including economic and quality-of-life factors; safety; and impact on the truck sector.
The options were:
•Alternative A, a series of improvements to the existing Route 22A corridor in Vergennes by widening its northern and southern ends to include bike lanes, and installing traffic-calming measures between Otter Creek and Monkton Road. Those would include such features as markings for bike lanes, build-outs at crosswalks, and textured crosswalks and median strips.
The option would come with a $1.9 million price tag, and many elements are already included in a Main Street paving project the Vermont Agency of Transportation plans for 2020.
•Alternative B, an estimated $39 million, 32-foot-wide, alternate truck route to be build through northern Vergennes. Heading northward, it would leave Route 22A through a roundabout, cross Panton Road and then Otter Creek on a new bridge, cross Comfort Hill, and then rejoin Main Street just south of Kayhart Crossing at another roundabout. Unlike the in-line route, which has an 11-percent grade near Otter Creek, all grades would conform to VTrans standards.
The study cited not only benefits to downtown’s financial health and quality of life, but also the potential to develop land in the northern part of the city to enhance the city’s tax base and economic vitality.
Stantec traffic engineer Rick Bryant tipped his hand while presenting this option.
“We weren’t expecting to make recommendations, but the findings were so compelling we are making recommendations,” said Bryant, adding later, “There are lots of reasons for Alternative B to score well in the state evaluation process.”
•Alternative C, which would route northbound trucks along Route 17, mostly through Addison and New Haven, to Route 7 in New Haven Junction, and then north along Route 7. It would cost $23 million to upgrade Route 17, according to the study, and add $3.8 million to the trucking sector’s annual cost of moving freight. Selectboards in Addison, Waltham, New Haven and Ferrisburgh have opposed the plan.
On Tuesday those town officials had plenty of company.
“I’m convinced, and I think you can be convinced, Alternative C isn’t worth pursuing,” Bryant told the crowd.
At the conclusion of the 90-minute discussion of the alternatives, Vergennes Mayor Jeff Fritz took over the microphone and made his pitch for action.
“We need to do something, and we need to do something now,” he said.
Fritz then asked for a show of hands in support of the new truck route through northern Vergennes. Almost all of the 100 or so present raised a hand.
No one in the theater then raised a hand to back the Route 17 option.
“Alternative C is dead,” Fritz said.
There were signs that Alternative B— something studied for decades, most recently in the early 2000s — has more than a pulse, although officials said VTrans could not fund it for five years, and after that it would take another decade to plan, permit, design and build.
If the truck route is to survive that gauntlet, Bryant, Fritz, and Addison County Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Adam Lougee told the crowd that Vergennes and its neighbors must unite behind it and keep the pressure on VTrans.
“There needs to be broad-based support. There needs to be a clear message to VTrans,” Bryant said, adding, “They need to see all the fish swimming in the same direction.”
Messages of support or specific information, such as anecdotes of problems with truck traffic, may be filed with Mike Winslow, the city’s representative on the regional planning commission’s Transportation Advisory Committee, at [email protected].
Fritz also noted that about six trucks an hour are carrying hazardous materials through Vergennes, and the study noted 98 percent of the tractor-trailer units do not stop in Vergennes.
“It’s crucial we get them off Main Street,” Fritz said, adding that to do so, “It’s crucial we maintain enthusiasm.”
City property owner Terry Faithoffered one way to make the case: calling Alternative B the “Vergennes Economic Corridor,” because of the economic benefits claimed in the study.
Fritz agreed.
“It’s not a bypass,” he said, echoing a point city officials made privately before the gathering — they prefer the term “economic development corridor,” making the point the investment in the truck route can pay off.
City Manager Matt Chabot responded to a question of whether there are other communities that have built truck routes, and if so what have their experiences been.
Chabot said Morrisville officials have nothing but good things to say after VTrans built a truck route around their downtown. He, Fritz and VTrans official Joe Segale, who attended the Tuesday meeting, recently visited Morrisville and were told every downtown business is seeing a better bottom line and quality of life has improved.
“The experience Morrisville had could not have been more positive,” Chabot said.
Chabot concluded by pointing to a projection that Alternative B could spur development that would generate $2.9 million of revenue for Vergennes.
“Who would like to have $2.9 million of income revenue that didn’t come out of property taxes?” he said to applause.
Meanwhile, Bryant and Lougee said many elements of the inline Alternative A have already been discussed among VTrans, city and regional officials and will be put in place during the planned VTrans repaving of Route 22A through Vergennes in 2020.
“We think we’re going to do both,” Lougee said. “Alternative A is going to happen in some form.”
On Wednesday morning Chabot clarified what is likely to be done and what city officials’ priorities are. They would like to see the road widened south of the Otter Creek bridge and north of Monkton Road as well as the traffic-calming work between, but the downtown work is top on their list, he said.
Further, he said upgrades proposed for North Main Street, including a sidewalk to the VTrans park-and-ride lot as well as a wider roadway, are probably more critical than widening West Main Street.
“If I had to choose between one and the other, that would be my choice,” he said.
City officials would like to see all of the $1.9 million package if possible next year.
“It’s part of the request,” Chabot said.
Chabot was asked on Wednesday how he felt about the turnout and backing for the alternate truck route.
“I was absolutely encouraged last night by the outstanding level of support we received from our community,” he said.
In response to questions at Tuesday’s truck forum:
•  VTrans official Joe Segale said there was not enough traffic volume to justify the expense of setting up a toll system to support the cost of Alternative B.
•  Stantec traffic engineer Rick Bryant said the truck route would not necessarily go near the large trailer park on Panton Road, but if it did extensive mitigation work would be done.
•  Bryant said the number of truck would increase to 1,200 a day within 25 years, and that projected increased capacity of rail would not be enough to offset the increase.
•  Adam Lougee said Bryant’s PowerPoint presentation is available at acrpc.org, and the full study soon would be.
•  Bryant said the bypass would bes designed with a longer travel time so that through car traffic would still be encouraged to travel through and potentially stop in the city.
•  Segale said it would be determined during the final planning process if intersections along the truck route would need signals or not, as would issues such as the designation of Main Street as it relates to state maintenance support. “We can roll up our sleeves” once the project is approved,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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