Study says Circ highway taking longer, costing more

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(Host) An environmental study for a new Chittenden County highway is taking longer to complete and will cost about a million dollars more than expected.

Transportation Secretary Neale Lunderville says he’s frustrated by the delay. But he says the added time and expense are needed to get a project that the public and the courts will accept.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The Circ is a 16-mile, $180 million highway that was designed to link the suburbs around Burlington.

A federal judge stopped the project in 2004 because the state and federal government failed to conduct the environmental review the law required.

Transportation Secretary Neale Lunderville says the new review is taking longer than expected, in part to put together a document that will withstand legal challenge.

(Lunderville) “It’s certainly is frustrating for everybody that’s involved in this. We obviously want to move as quickly as possible to get this study done and begin work on whatever alternative we decide on. At the same time, we want to make sure that we do it right. We want to take a little extra time to study all of those options and all of their consequences.”

(Dillon) Transportation officials plan to brief the public next week on the studies underway for the Circumferential Highway.

But the public won’t get a look at the draft environmental impact statement that’s now being written. Lunderville says the document won’t be finished until July. That’s about a year and a half behind the original schedule. The cost of the study has also ballooned. Officials first said the review would cost between $2 and $4 million. That estimate increased last year to about $6.2 million. Lunderville says the cost is now likely to be about $7.3 million.

(Lunderville) “Initially we were too optimistic. When we started to dig into looking at this project and the transportation challenges in Chittenden County, it went from studying a couple of alternatives to studying now 10 alternatives plus the no build alternatives.”

(Dillon) The added time and the growing list of alternatives to the Circ is not welcome news to members of Metropolitan Planning Organization. The organization oversees Chittenden County’s transportation projects. Director Scott Johnstone says the board was not happy when it was briefed by the Transportation Agency last month.

(Johnstone) “I think what Vtrans heard from the MPO board pretty clearly is a pretty heightened level of frustration both with the pace, the cost, the need to get to some firmer recommendations. What they said pretty clearly is that folks just want to see the agency to put a stake in terms of what they think is the right thing to do, how to solve this problem.”

(Dillon) The alternatives being studied include a new highway, and improvements to existing roadways.

Johnstone says the MPO wants the agency to say which alternative it likes best.

But Transportation Secretary Lundeville says when the draft environmental impact statement is released in July it will not list the agency’s top choices.

(Lunderville) “We don’t want to pre-judge the outcome. We want each alternative to be thoroughly studied, every option analyzed completely and thoroughly and then from that allow the best alternative to fall out of the process.”

(Dillon) Lunderville says work on the new road or its alternatives won’t begin until the next construction season, at the earliest.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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