Vergennes officials take plan for truck route on the road

VERGENNES — With a study in hand that states an alternate truck route through northern Vergennes would not only remove unwanted truck traffic from the city’s downtown but also enhance the city and the region’s economic prospects, Vergennes officials have started the first step of making the new road a reality: mustering regional support for it.
Although the truck road, which city officials are pitching as the Vergennes Economic Corridor, or VEC, will not be built for 15 to 20 years at the earliest, if it is to be built at all the groundwork for that backing must be laid immediately, according to Vergennes Mayor Jeff Fritz.
“Where we are now is we’ve got to start this conversation,” Fritz said. “We realize this proposed route might not be the final route, but if we’re all in conversation all along the way, things will go much more smoothly.”
So far the Ferrisburgh and New Haven selectboards are on board for a tentative plan for a road that, heading northward, would leave Route 22A through a roundabout, cross Panton Road, soar over Otter Creek on a new bridge, cross Comfort Hill, and then rejoin Main Street just south of Kayhart Crossing at another roundabout. All of this is in Vergennes city limits.
Unlike Route 22A in Vergennes, which has a steep 11-percent grade near Otter Creek, all grades would conform to gentler sloping Agency of Transportation standards.
Panton is not necessarily opposed, but because an earlier proposal called for the west end of the route to run through that town, Panton’s town plan includes language against the truck route that must be reckoned with.
Vergennes officials will meet with Waltham’s selectboard on June 3, and are seeking to get on the Addison selectboard agenda to discuss a plan to reroute most of the 900 trucks a day that rumble through downtown Vergennes, by far the most in Vermont that travel through a village.
The 32-foot-wide truck route could cost $39 million, according to a study done on behalf of VTrans by South Burlington consulting firm Stantec and unveiled at the Vergennes Opera House in April.
That study cited not only benefits to downtown Vergennes 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.
Why are city officials on a regional tour to drum up support, including meeting with the Ferrisburgh selectboard on May 21 and the Panton board on May 14?
Back at the April unveiling of the study, Addison County Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Adam Lougee and Stantec traffic engineer Rick Bryant both told the crowd that if the road is to be built Vergennes and its neighbors must unite behind it to keep the pressure on VTrans to fund it.
“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.”
So far results have mostly been positive. Although Fritz and City Manager Matt Chabot decided to skip a meeting with the New Haven selectboard, that board’s chairman, Steve Dupoise, told them that New Haven was already in their corner. In a phone call with the Independent, Dupoise confirmed that backing, especially now that the idea of using Route 17 through New Haven and Addison as an alternative has been abandoned. 
“We are fully in favor of the Vergennes bypass,” Dupoise said.
Ferrisburgh selectboard Chairman Rick Ebel said that town’s board backed the proposal, with the understanding that Ferrisburgh has no liability.
“It was a unanimous vote to support the concept, the idea of the economic development corridor,” Ebel said.
He noted that “it is a concept,” and that if the route changed substantially, particularly to encroach into Ferrisburgh, a future board could revisit the question.
“Clearly that would have to be discussed at length with the larger Ferrisburgh community, and certainly the affected property owners,” Ebel said.
The possibility of the route wandering into Panton can fairly be called a sticking point, although Selectboard Chairman Howard Hall said the board is not opposed to such a proposal.
“We agree there is a problem with trucks, and we agree something should be done,” Hall said.  
Hall said the selectboard would meet with town planners in June to discuss possibly amending the town plan, which is not due otherwise for a rewrite until 2015. Such a process would mean public hearings before both boards before an amendment could be approved.
Hall said residents should be heard.
“I believe the people are concerned about this and want to talk about this,” Hall said. “It isn’t like we’re going to wait until 2025 if the board is concerned, and the community is concerned, and the people want this.”
Fritz said he hopes the route can stay within Vergennes.
“We are very clear that this is a problem that we want to solve on our own,” the mayor said.
At the same time, Fritz said because all local residents shop, dine and relax in downtown Vergennes, they should consider supporting the truck route.
“We are the downtown for five towns. Everyone in our region is affected by this truck traffic,” Fritz said. “I feel that is the most critical piece of the message, and the one that I think that resonates most with folks.” 
Members of the Panton Planning Commission also questioned Chabot and Fritz at the May 14 meeting and expressed concerns, including about potential traffic problems on Panton Road and whether the city’s sewer system, which has been plagued with overflow problems, could handle the development
Fritz said the city has plans to solve the overflow problem before the truck route is built, and with that solved the system has extra capacity. As for the traffic, the roundabout on Route 22A and signals on Panton Road where the new road would meet it should help the existing rush hour bottlenecks where West Main Street and Panton Road meet.
Fritz remains confident in the short and long term. He hopes Waltham and Addison will sign on, and eventually so will VTrans.
Stantec pointed out in April that a similar bypass in Morrisville has had a demonstrably favorable impact on that town’s downtown and economy, and Bryant said at the meeting that there are “lots of reasons for Alternative B  (the in-town truck route) to score well in the state evaluation process.”
Chabot noted that meeting one projection — the truck route could spur development that would generate $2.9 million of annual revenue for Vergennes.
The land it would pass through is largely undeveloped and now inaccessible, but officials — and Stantec engineers — believe a new road could develop it.
Fritz said city officials now envision up to 100 new homes, noting the high demand in Vergennes for new, efficient, low-maintenance properties that they believe younger families are seeking.
“They’re looking for a smaller home. They don’t want a lot of maintenance. They don’t necessarily want a large yard. And we need to be prepared to provide that for them,” he said, adding, “It needs to be the kind of housing that folks want, and that’s hard to find in Addison County.”
But does Fritz really believe after earlier truck route proposals have come and gone for decades this one will get built?
“I hope to actually drive on it,” Fritz said. “I’ll be 60 next year, so I’m pretty confident I’ll get to drive on it.”
 Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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