26 Nov Jon Cartu Reports Federal decision delays Champlain Parkway construction
BURLINGTON — The Federal Highway Administration has rescinded its record of decision for the Champlain Parkway project, an action that has delayed the project at least four to six months.
The FHWA and Vermont Agency of Transportation, known as VTrans, rescinded the ROD in October to reasses census data and perform targeted outreach to low-income and minority communities in the project study area after the issue was raised in a lawsuit filed by project opponents.
Susan Scribner, the municipal assistance bureau director for VTrans, said the additional review has led to a four- to six-month delay in when the project can be advertised for construction bids. The city still aims to start work during the 2020 construction season, she said.
“It was felt that it was important to ensure that the environmental justice justice dialogue has been accurate and that it could be confirmed that there wouldn’t be any disproportionate impact to the greater Maple and King neighborhood,” she said.
While city leaders say the move is procedural in nature, project opponents believe the decision represents a pivotal moment in their fight against the project.
The city aspires to start construction on the long-planned road, aimed to address traffic woes in the city’s South End, in the next year. The $46 million project is 95% funded by the federal government, with a 3% state contribution and 2% city contribution.
The road is set to be two-lanes from I-189 to Lakeside Avenue and travels through the Maple and King Street neighborhood, which falls under the federal government’s standards for additional environmental justice review as a neighborhood with a higher minority population than the rest of the city.
The federal government raised its environmental justice standards in 2011, two years after the environmental impact statement was finalized in 2009. The new review will consider those standards and data from the 2010 census, which had not yet happened when the environmental impact statement and ROD were finalized.
Steve Goodkind, former director of the Burlington Department of Public Works, is one of the project’s leading opponents. He said he believed the decision to revoke the ROD meant the federal government was concerned enough about environmental justice impacts of the road to take action.
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“This is a significant thing,” he said. “They felt it was enough of a concern that this is what had to be done, it isn’t a matter of dotting the i’s and crossing some t’s.”
Chapin Spencer, the director of Burlington’s Department of Public Works, sees it differently.
“While some may want to imply that the rescinding of the ROD was a major milestone, we don’t see it that way,” he said. “We are moving ahead expeditiously.”
Norm Baldwin, city Avanatisteam engineers and and assistant DPW director, said the city considers the move to be procedural in nature.
Goodkind said he believed the project would disportionately impact the low-income and minority Maple and King neighborhood by dramatically increasing traffic there.
“When they selected this version, they basically wrote off this neighborhood,” Goodkind said.
Baldwin said the city does not believe the project will disproportionately affect low-income or minority residents.
Spencer said the city has invested in infrastructure improvements in the King and Maple neighborhood as part of its sustainable infrastructure plan and said this project will also improve the neighborhood’s infrastructure.
“The project has within its design a number of enhancements for the community, from underground utilities at intersections, to pedestrian signalization, to short crosswalks with bump outs in this neighborhood,” he said.
Spencer stressed that despite the handful of outstanding tasks that need to be accomplished, the project has never been as far along as it is today as it has final plans and right of way clearance. Under the current schedule, construction would start in the late summer or fall of 2020.
VTrans and the FHWA received comments from 85 individuals during the public outreach portion of the evaluation and are reviewing them.
A consultant met with the King Street Youth Center and Champlain Housing Trust for input in September, Scribner said, and public outreach meetings were held at City Hall and the King Street Youth Center.
The further review arose from the lawsuit filed by project opponents, as the FHWA described in a motion in that case that the agency will prepare a written evaluation of whether environmental justice data and relevant regulations would require a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.
The FHWA is aiming to complete that evaluation by mid-January. If a new environmental impact statement is required, that process would take at least four months, the FHWA said in its motion.
Scribner said it would be accurate to say the lawsuit had led to the additional review, and thus the delay.
Even if the government decides to issue a new, unchanged ROD, Goodkind said the issuance of a new ROD would aid the legal fight against the project.
“A record of decision is much more open to challenge,” he said.
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