Southwest Corner: Bennington bypass

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(Host) Officials in Bennington have been struggling for over 30 years to build a bypass around the city. The project is finally underway, but it’s still nearly a decade away from completion – if it gets completed.

In our series on the Southwest Corner, VPR’s Nina Keck reports on the status of the bypass and it’s potential impact:

(Keck) Like many towns in Vermont, Bennington has a nasty traffic problem. Right in the heart of its historic downtown, two major highways intersect – Routes 7 and 9.

It’s estimated that every day about 12,000 vehicles travel along each of those corridors, some 600 of which are large trucks. Long time Bennington resident Dick Pembroke stands at the corner and watches the traffic. Pembroke recently stepped down after serving 16 years in the state Legislature – the last 10 as chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

(Pembroke) “We have a library just to the east of where we’re standing and a lot of the hearings on the bypass were held there. And during the meetings we’d have to get up and close the windows because we couldn’t understand what people were saying in the room and even with the windows closed, they were vibrating and the noise. So it’s something you get used to, but it’s just not an environmental, economical way to put up with the traffic.”

(Keck) He says rerouting the traffic around the city is a much better solution. The price tag? About $200 million. He says nearly $80 million has been spent so far.

Because the six-mile bypass is such a large project, it’s been divided into three segments. The first leg from New York’s Route 7 to Vermont’s Route 67A should be completed next year. The second section of the bypass, which will swing around the northern and eastern parts of the city to Route 9, is approved and in the capital budget. A start date for construction on that portion has not been set, however, and Pembroke says it will probably take several years to build. Bennington Town Manager Stewart Hurd says the fate of the final, southern leg of the bypass, which would connect Route 9 down to Route 7 south of the city, is more uncertain.

(Hurd) “There are people upstate who feel it is not necessary. We have studies that were funded by the Agency of Transportation that says if we build the southern portion it will improve seven intersections that move in this north-south corridor and bring them from a D or an F up to a B or a C. So there’s plenty of evidence to say it’s necessary to complete that leg. But we’re constantly running into more political roadblocks than engineering roadblocks.”

(Keck) Hurd realizes that a big-ticket project like the bypass is an easy target at a time when transportation dollars are shrinking. But he and other town officials warn that cutting any section of the bypass will hurt it’s overall effectiveness and would mean millions of taxpayer dollars already invested would be wasted. Lance Matteson is executive director of the Bennington County Industrial Corporation:

(Matteson) “The problem is that I think there are some in the Legislature who see this as a big money project and aren’t convinced that it’s helping their neck of the woods. And we need them to understand that this is a state project, it’s not just for downtown Bennington.”

(Keck) Town Manager Stewart Hurd says Bennington’s close proximity to Albany, Troy and Schenectady, New York – not to mention Massachusetts – make it an important gateway to Vermont.

(Hurd) “We have access to more than a half million people in the tri-cities area of New York. So if Bennington does well, then the state’s going to do well – because it’ll make it easier for people to move through the state.”

(Keck) Despite concern among some local officials, former lawmaker Dick Pembroke is confident the funding will be found and the entire bypass completed. He says that after 30 years, the mere fact that work on the project is finally underway is a good sign.

(Pembroke) “It is a big project. We have to check every salamander and forget me knot and four leaf clover and everything as we go along which is fine, I have no problem with that. But it’s hard to make the general public understand. They say, ‘My God, Dick – it’s taking forever to do that. And they just don’t understand. But we’re very fortunate, we’ve got a good contractor, they really know what they’re doing and that’s helped a lot.”

(Keck) Governor Douglas has called the Bennington bypass one of his top three transportation priorities – along with Burlington’s Circ highway and the Missisquoi Bay Bridge. Bennington officials now hope lawmakers will agree, approve the necessary funding and make the bypass a reality before another thirty years goes by.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Bennington.

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VPR’s series, Southwest Corner, includes news stories, interviews and commentaries on issues that face the southwestern part of the state.

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