Vergennes City Council affirms sidewalk project

Certainly if you wanted to just throw a sidewalk down the side of the road and call it a day you wouldn’t be talking that kind of money. But this project is a lot more complicated than that.
— Mel Hawley

VERGENNES — A grant-funded Main Street sidewalk project that Vergennes officials have long said will better help link the city’s downtown with its Otter Creek basin area and public docks is back on track after a summer controversy.
The proposed 400-foot sidewalk would run along the north side of Main Street from Macdonough Drive to what officials call the Riverwalk, just short of the Otter Creek bridge.
That path in turn leads to a stairway next to the falls that winds down to the east side of the river basin. The sidewalk’s addition will mean that pedestrians who want to reach the basin — or vice versa — will not have to cross Main Street/Route 22A near the bridge, where at times trucks are accelerating to climb the hill into downtown.
If all goes smoothly, the sidewalk could be built during the summer of 2022, according to Adam Lougee, executive director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission (ACRPC).
The ACRPC contracted with Vergennes in 2018 to manage a grant of $200,000 for the sidewalk project. The grant requires a 20% city match to help pay for the design, engineering and building of the sidewalk along Main Street.
The city council back then supported the grant, which came from the Vermont Agency of Transportation using federal funding.
City officials said at the Dec. 15 council meeting the project is expensive due to complicating factors, including sloping terrain, drainage issues, and a retaining wall along one portion of the roadside.
The councilors voted, 5-1, at that Dec. 15 meeting to reaffirm the city’s support for the project. Only Councilor David Austin voted against, citing philosophical objections to its potential overall cost.
Why was it necessary to vote on the question again?
Progress on the project had been complicated this summer when then-City Manager Daniel Hofman recommended to the council that Vergennes walk away from the grant, insisting the sidewalk could be built for less than the city’s grant match.
Hofman also upset a number of residents and officials by becoming involved in a public dispute with members of the city’s planning commission and recreation committee — both boards favored the project — about the sidewalk.
Hofman wrote on the city’s website alleging Lougee and one planner who works for ACRPC had financial conflicts of interest for backing the project, and suggested a recreation committee member was scheming behind his back on Facebook. After that issue surfaced, Mayor Lynn Donnelly said she would vet all public city website posts.
Those latter disagreements didn’t surface directly at last week’s council meeting. But Hofman’s name came up when another former city manager, Mel Hawley, now a councilor, disagreed with Hofman’s take on what was necessary to build the sidewalk.
“At one point Daniel thought the project could be done for less than the local match,” Hawley said. “And I don’t know that the city council ever saw a true apples-to-apples comparison. Certainly if you wanted to just throw a sidewalk down the side of the road and call it a day you wouldn’t be talking that kind of money. But this project is a lot more complicated than that.”
Interim City Manager Renny Perry also took issue with the idea of abandoning a grant, both for short-term and long-term reasons.
Perry said the cost of the city match would probably be less expensive than having the Vergennes Public Works Department do the project. And he added due to the project’s complexity, “I don’t see our own crew doing this.”
Perry also advised the council against walking away from the grant because it could jeopardize the city’s chances of getting other grants in future years.
“It’s a long process, it’s a competitive grant, and Vergennes was lucky to get it, and it’s a project that needs to get done,” Perry said.
Lougee, who confirmed ACRPC has a contract for up to $17,000 to manage the project, said the sidewalk had been on the city’s wish list for more than a decade.
“This sidewalk is a really good and important project for the city of Vergennes regardless of what you decide to do. You’ve invested a lot in your basin, and you’ve invested a lot in your marina. And this is the best connection from here up to the merchants in your city,” Lougee said.
Two years ago, Lougee said ACRPC employee and city planning commission member Mike Winslow helped Vergennes obtain the VTrans grant. Lougee added the project might not be as expensive as the top end of the $250,000 total of the grant and the city match.
“The actual cost of the sidewalk will be based on a bid from a contractor, and because it is federal money, you take the lowest, basically responsible, bid. So it could end up being a lot less,” he said.
Lougee said ACRPC secured an engineering firm through VTrans for up to $42,800 to complete the design and permitting process.
“We could have this project up and running in very short order,” Lougee said. He clarified the need to obtain construction easements would mean the summer of 2022 would be a reasonable target completion date.
The only other question that arose came from Councilor Dickie Austin, who wondered if a design first floated more than a decade ago could reflect recent improvements to downtown.
Lougee assured him it could.
“We’re going to go through an engineering process and a public process,” Lougee said. “We’ll design a project that fits Main Street right now as it is.”

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