The day of Nov. 21 marked a promising shift in transportation planning in Vermont. That was when the Circ Alternatives Task Force voted unanimously to approve 34 transportation projects that will help a key area of the state move beyond the “Circ” highway and toward a more efficient, affordable transportation future.
The task force — which included affected towns, business interests and environmental groups — was formed in May 2011 when Gov. Peter Shumlin announced that the Chittenden County Circumferential Highway, or Circ, would not be built as originally envisioned.
Recognizing that local businesses and residents, as well as visitors to Chittenden County, face major transportation challenges because of the region’s growth and development patterns, the governor charged the group with developing alternative solutions that would improve driving, walking, biking and public transit, while reducing congestion and avoiding the environmental and other impacts of the Circ.
But what could fulfill the purpose of the original project — which had been on the drawing boards for decades — with fewer environmental, sprawl and cost impacts?
The task force, with assistance from the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, worked hard on this question. Ultimately, we approved a package of projects that thinks big. It includes extensive intersection, lane and signal improvements but also envisions more park-and-ride spaces, bus routes, transit shelters, and walking and biking paths for people who choose to commute without their cars. As a package, these fixes provide a wide variety of choices for current and future commuters, residents and shoppers.
Looking beyond Chittenden County, we know that this type of multimodal transportation planning is more important than ever. Tight state and federal funding for road improvements strongly suggests that the era of massive new public highway projects, in Vermont and even nationally, may be fading into history. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal highway trust fund will start running a deficit starting in fiscal year 2015. And Vermont expects to see an annual shortfall in transportation money of $240 million over each of the next five years, even as fuel costs rise for consumers. So while we may not all immediately ditch our cars and start walking, biking and taking the bus, now is the time to develop options that we can use as transportation costs and funding change.
Changing demographics will also affect where we invest our limited transportation dollars. In the past several years, Vermont has actually seen a decrease in driving: According to the Federal Highway Administration, in 2011 the average Vermonter traveled 8 percent fewer miles than in 2005 — a trend that goes beyond the economic downturn. Even young Vermonters are getting driver’s licenses at a slower rate: Between 2007 and 2011, the number of learner’s permits issued decreased by almost 3 percent (compared with an overall decrease in licensing of only 1 percent).
For many Vermonters, the Circ long represented the promise of relief from traffic congestion, increased economic activity and general progress. It might have accomplished some of those things had it come to pass, but I believe that the package of transportation improvements ultimately approved by the task force will do those things too, just using different tools and without as many adverse consequences. And these strategies will be more closely aligned to the realities of the future.
What’s more, the task force process itself also demonstrated how a group of people thinking and planning regionally can, through compromise and leadership, make tough decisions now that will help all of us in the future.
Kate McCarthy is sustainable communities program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council. She served on the Circ Alternatives Task Force.MORE IN Commentary
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