The City of Burlington has once again gotten the green light to construct the Champlain Parkway, a 2.8-mile roadway that's been planned for the city’s South End for decades.
The Federal Highway Administration issued its final approval, called a record of decision, on Thursday. Work could begin as soon as this summer.
Envisioned as a four-lane highway in the 1960s, the modern Champlain Parkway is a low-speed roadway meant to improve traffic flow between the city’s South End and its downtown. The route would begin at the unfinished Interstate 189 interchange on Shelburne Road, extend from Home to Lakeside avenue, then jog down Pine Street to Main.
“It is time to get this project built, deliver its benefits to the people of Burlington and the region, and demonstrate that our systems for building new public infrastructure still function,” Mayor Miro Weinberger said in a statement Friday.
If the city's optimism sounds familiar, it is: The feds issued a record of decision for the project in 2010, sparking excitement among proponents that the roadway would finally be built after years of legal entanglements. But progress was stymied in 2019, when an opponent group, the Pine Street Coalition, filed a lawsuit claiming that the plans relied on outdated demographic data and traffic models.
The Federal Highway Administration, one of the defendants in the suit, rescinded the project approval until it could investigate the traffic impact on the King/Maple street neighborhood — the most racially diverse along the parkway route.
The Champlain Parkway route. A potential route for the Railyard Enterprise Project is in orange.
The feds’ decision this week concluded that while the parkway would increase traffic on Pine Street by 9 percent, including in the King/Maple neighborhood, new coordinated traffic signals there would mitigate “any adverse effects.”
The project's construction schedule, and other projects in the pipeline, would also alleviate traffic impacts in the South End and in the King/Maple area specifically, according to Chapin Spencer, Burlington's public works director.
For one, the city has proposed delaying parkway construction on Pine between King and Maple until another traffic-diverting project is completed. The Railyard Enterprise Project would create a connector road between Pine and Battery streets on land owned by the Vermont Rail System, bypassing the King/Maple area and reducing traffic there by nearly 60 percent, according to a recent study.
City of Burlington
South End construction plans
The city also plans to tackle the unfinished section of I-189 nearly last, ensuring that other South End streets are shored up before inviting traffic from the interstate and Route 7, Spencer said. Other projects — including one to build a roundabout on Shelburne Street, which is currently under construction — should help traffic flows in the project area, Spencer added.
"That's really why it's important to take a holistic, big picture view of the totality of what we are working on as a community," he said, adding, "this is a modified approach to what was proposed before."
Still, Spencer acknowledged that there's no guarantee the projects will be built in the order currently envisioned. For one, unlike the parkway, the rail yard project design isn't finalized, nor has it undergone an environmental review. City staff plan to meet with affected landowners next month, and hope to emerge with a preferred design by late summer, Spencer said.
Project opponents are still skeptical of the current parkway design. Tony Redington, a member of the Pine Street Coalition that sued the city in 2019, deferred comment on the project's approval until the group consults with its attorney. Redington said if the record of decision is anything like the preliminary approval issued by federal highway officials last July, he'd be concerned that the project doesn't adequately address environmental justice at all.
"It's like the two-and-a-half years went by ... and nothing changed," he said.
Meantime, the Pine Street Coalition has teamed up with the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance and Fortieth Burlington, the corporate name for the Innovation Center on Lakeside Avenue, in promoting its own version of the parkway. The "Champlain RIGHTWay" wouldn't build through the King/Maple area at all, and demands that the rail yard project be built before shovels hit the ground on the parkway.
The RIGHTWay also calls for using roundabouts instead of traffic lights and installing separate bike and pedestrian paths in place of the parkway's proposed shared-use paths.
Spencer, who once opposed the parkway when he led the cycling nonprofit Local Motion, stands by the project design. Plans call for crosswalks, raised intersections and stormwater improvements that will reduce runoff into Lake Champlain.
As for the lawsuit?
"The city and its partners are actively managing that legal risk," Spencer said. "And if you look over the past eight years, we have been successful in defeating all six previous legal challenges from this small handful of opponents. We're planning to continue that successful record."