- Seven Days ©️ Seven Days
- The Champlain Parkway route. A potential route for the Railyard Enterprise Project is in orange.
Mark Hughes delivered a clear message to city planners at a meeting last July about the Champlain Parkway, a 2.8-mile roadway planned to ease traffic between Burlington's South End and its downtown.
Hughes, coordinator of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, was concerned that because the parkway would end at Main Street, it would dump more traffic into the nearby King and Maple streets neighborhood — the most racially diverse area along the project route. Data showed that the new roadway would generate 37 percent more traffic in the King/Maple area but would generate 73 percent less in the more affluent, whiter neighborhood to the south near Home Avenue.
"I stand in total opposition to this project," Hughes told the planners. "If it has to happen like this, I say, 'Kill it.'"
The proposed parkway would begin at the unfinished Interstate 189 interchange on Shelburne Road, snake north from Home to Lakeside avenues and jog east onto Pine Street, which would become the parkway route all the way to Main.
Hughes' thinking has shifted slightly since last summer. Instead of trying to stop the parkway, which has been planned since the 1960s, Hughes and other community organizers are urging the city to build another project first that would divert some traffic from the King/Maple neighborhood.
The Railyard Enterprise Project would create a connector that departs Pine Street near Kilburn Street and reaches Battery Street by cutting through property owned by Vermont Rail System. The route would give motorists more direct access to the waterfront and other points farther north.
Depending on its final design, the project could reduce traffic in the King/Maple area by as much as 59 percent, according to a study last August by the consulting firm Resource Systems Group.
Hughes and the Pine Street Coalition, a grassroots group that has sued over the parkway design, approve of that detour and have incorporated it into their own plan, the "Champlain RIGHTway." Their concept would build 0.75 fewer miles of new roadway, use roundabouts instead of traffic lights, and install separate bike and pedestrian paths instead of the proposed shared-use paths on the parkway. Fortieth Burlington, the corporate name for the Innovation Center on Lakeside Avenue, has joined the activists in the fight.
The rail yard project was first proposed in 2012, but the city has taken steps in recent months to accelerate its progress. On Monday night, the Burlington City Council approved an agreement with the Vermont Agency of Transportation to begin engineering work. Chapin Spencer, director of Burlington's Department of Public Works, expects that construction could begin in four to six years.
Meantime, the city is eyeing a 2022 start for the parkway, barring any additional appeals. And while Spencer says the city supports the concept of building the rail yard connector "as soon as possible," that doesn't necessarily mean before the long-stalled parkway.
"It could be that one goes before the other; it could be that they're constructed simultaneously; it could be any number of trajectories," Spencer said, "but the important thing is both projects, together, really strengthen Burlington for the long term."
That isn't good enough for the activists, who worry that the King/Maple neighborhood would bear the impact until the rail yard project was built.
"What they're saying is, 'We have to make the patients sick before we come back and cure them,'" Pine Street Coalition member Tony Redington said of the city's approach. Building the parkway first will "purposefully make this neighborhood suffer."
The coalition brought racial justice concerns to the fore in June 2019, when it sued the city, state and Federal Highway Administration. The lawsuit demanded additional review, contending that the parkway plans relied on outdated demographic data and traffic models. The federal agency subsequently agreed to investigate whether the road would increase traffic in the King/Maple neighborhood. That October, federal highway officials rescinded the project permit, known as a "record of decision," and pledged to reach out to low-income and minority communities bordering the planned parkway.
Released last July, the study found that the parkway would increase traffic but that various safety improvements — such as traffic signals at intersections and extended curbs to reduce pedestrians' crossing distance — would mitigate these "adverse effects."
Activists, however, argue that a new connector between Pine and Battery streets could head off these traffic issues from the start. And they point out that the idea of building a road through the rail yard is not a new one — it was once the city's preferred design for the parkway itself.
Once proposed as a four-lane highway, the parkway route originally ran parallel to Pine Street over the Barge Canal. In the 1980s, the city rerouted the road from the canal, which was designated as a Superfund site when officials discovered toxic chemicals in the soil.
By the early 2000s, city, state and federal highway officials had identified two new options for the parkway. The city endorsed a proposal that included building a connector road from Pine to Battery via the rail yard, removing traffic from the King/Maple neighborhood. But the feds, who had the ultimate say, chose a different final project design. They said the city's preferred option would have demolished a portion of the former Burlington Street Department building and relocated a rail spur, both of which are historic structures.
There was also the issue of cost: $37 million for the city's version compared to $20 million for the fed's proposal, according to a 2009 report known as an environmental impact statement. Since then, the parkway cost has more than doubled to $45 million. The feds will pay 95 percent of the price, and the state will chip in 3 percent. The city's 2 percent share — plus the added expense of disposing of contaminated soil, burying utility lines and making other improvements — will be about $3.5 million.
Steve Goodkind was the city engineer in 2009 and has since joined the Pine Street Coalition. He argues that there's "no technical reason and no legal reason" not to build the rail yard project first.
"Let's do the project we always wanted to do and make it better from the get-go," he said. "That's the right thing to do, and that's what environmental justice, we believe, requires us to do."
Spencer, the public works director, says it's not that simple. For one, the city has a number of construction projects already in the pipeline. Work is scheduled to begin next month to reconstruct the roundabout intersection on Shelburne Street, the South End's only other major north-south roadway. And the city will soon begin work along the waterfront to prep for the return of passenger trains in 2022. Several paving projects are also scheduled.
"All these investments in critical infrastructure require careful planning," Spencer said. "We're looking at each project and how best to place it in a timeline that's going to work best for our community."
At the same time, Spencer said the city has successfully pressured the state to advance the rail yard project. In 2019, state highway officials told the city it would not allow even preliminary engineering to begin until after the parkway was built — and that the city would be on the hook for 20 percent of the rail yard project's costs. Since then, Spencer and Mayor Miro Weinberger have convinced state and federal officials that the rail yard connector is vital and timely. The state is now allowing engineering to begin, and the city will pay just 10 percent of the $20 million construction cost.
"This administration has a pragmatic, problem-solving approach," Spencer said, adding, "The city has a strong record of trying to do what the Pine Street Coalition is now asking for."
The city expects a new record of decision on the parkway this fall, which would green-light construction. Once construction begins, the city has just 10 years to finish the parkway, according to Michele Boomhower, director of the Policy, Planning and Intermodal Development Division at VTrans. Boomhower doubts the feds would fund the rail yard connector if the city didn't make progress on the parkway once that clock starts ticking.
The city has "already spent tens of millions of public dollars to get the parkway ready to go," she said. "They need to continue to show good faith in actually advancing that project."
Hughes, of the racial justice alliance, said Black communities have suffered for too long as a result of U.S. transportation policy. When the federal highway system was designed in the 1950s, roads were built directly through Black and brown communities, sometimes deliberately. Forcing the Champlain Parkway through King and Maple streets — without first diverting some of that traffic — would uphold these systems of oppression, Hughes says.
"Folks are putting money over people," he said. "When you look at how systemic racism plays out, it is for the economic advantage of white people and to the economic detriment of Black people."
Hughes is determined to make the "RIGHTway" happen. He's penned an open letter to Gov. Phil Scott and contacted Vermont's congressional delegation, though none has signed on in support of the plan. To Hughes, a Black Burlington resident, it's not acceptable for the city to knowingly burden a racially diverse neighborhood with traffic even if it pledges to reroute the cars later.
"That could easily, automatically mean that a 5-year-old in that neighborhood will be well into adulthood before this problem is addressed," he said. "People are gonna have to step up, and they're gonna have to look past what they think it might cost."
Hughes has at least one city leader in his corner. When City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) ran for mayor this past March, he pledged to make racial justice paramount in city planning, including by building the rail yard project before or at the same time as the parkway. Tracy lost the election but urges the Weinberger administration to consider the plan.
"In this country, we have such a long history of transportation planning decisions having incredibly detrimental impacts on communities of color," Tracy said. "I just hope that we're able to learn from those mistakes here in Burlington and take a different approach."