Champlain Parkway Construction Could Begin in July After Council Approves Contract | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Champlain Parkway Construction Could Begin in July After Council Approves Contract


Published April 25, 2022 at 10:41 p.m.

The proposed route of the Champlain Parkway - GRAPHIC BY JOHN JAMES
  • Graphic by John James
  • The proposed route of the Champlain Parkway
At its meeting Monday, the Burlington City Council unanimously approved a $45 million contract to build the first phase of the Champlain Parkway, a landmark moment in the decades-long effort to get the roadway built.

The project's sole, $41 million bid — from S.D. Ireland Brothers and Kubricky Construction — came in nearly $14.5 million higher than initial estimates, likely due to inflation and the war in Ukraine, which has driven up energy costs. The contract also includes an additional $4 million for contingencies.

Councilors Perri Freeman (P-Central District) and Ali House (P-Ward 8) were absent for the vote.

The 2.8-mile parkway will begin at the Interstate 189 interchange on Shelburne Road, run north from Home to Lakeside avenues, then jog east onto Pine Street, where it would extend up to Main. Work on the first phase, between Home Avenue and Kilburn Street, is scheduled to begin this July and end in October 2024. The entire project could be complete in 2027.

Councilor Gene Bergman (P-Ward 2) said he's concerned about data that shows the parkway would increase traffic in the King/Maple neighborhood, the most racially diverse area on the route. But he said there's no evidence that traffic will increase during the project's first phase. Bergman encouraged the city to keep pushing to build the Railyard Enterprise Project — which would divert traffic from the neighborhood via a connector road between Pine and Battery streets — before the parkway is completed.

"In my mind, that is essential to this being done in a racially just way," Bergman said, "and it is essential for my support going forward."

Mayor Miro Weinberger hailed the vote as a major milestone after lengthy permitting and legal battles.

"After 35 years in limbo, to have what feels like it's going to be a strong council vote here is a very hopeful moment for this project and for our ability to get big things done as a community, even if it takes longer than it should sometimes," he said.

Meantime, the grassroots Pine Street Coalition has vowed to keep fighting the parkway in federal court. The coalition's lawsuit seeks to stop the parkway and build what it calls the "Champlain RIGHTway," which features 0.75 fewer miles of new roadway and uses roundabouts instead of traffic lights, among other changes.

Ahead of the vote, the council spent two hours debating Burlington's once-in-a-decade redistricting process. But while councilors generally agreed that the current model isn't ideal, there was less consensus on how to improve it.

After a protracted back-and-forth, councilors approved a motion — with just Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) voting no — requesting that city officials draw maps using seven, eight and 12 wards, all of which should keep the Old North End distinct from the New North End.

Since 2015, Burlington has been divided into eight numbered wards and four districts — North, South, East and Central — for a total of 12 councilors. Each district is composed of two wards, so residents have two elected officials: a councilor from their ward and another that represents their geographical district.

The redistricting process offers the opportunity to shake up the status quo. Triggered every 10 years by new U.S. Census Bureau data, redistricting redraws voting districts to have roughly the same populations. Divided equally, Burlington's eight wards should each have about 5,593 people, but some areas have grown faster than others. The uneven distribution leaves the city's voting system ripe for a constitutional challenge.

Councilors must now decide how they want to adjust the voting maps, which would take effect in 2024.

Before voting Monday, several councilors endorsed reverting to the previous model of 14 councilors representing seven wards. The design would allow each councilor to represent fewer constituents and theoretically form better connections with them. It would also mean each resident would continue to be represented by two councilors, an arrangement that both newly elected Councilor Ben Traverse (D-Ward 5) and Councilor Mark Barlow (I-North District) said they favor.

But Mayor Weinberger warned that the seven-ward configuration would likely mean that the New North End would cut into parts of the Old North End.

That issue "was the fundamental problem with the seven-ward map last time," Weinberger said. "I just want to be clear that's what's going to have to come back to meet the requirements of the law."

Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) endorsed both the 14-councilor, seven-ward model and a map with 12 councilors and 12 wards. Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) was in the minority when she advocated for "at-large" councilors to represent the entire city — an option Councilor Bergman  vociferously opposed but that Barlow said he'd consider. Shannon also said that she'd favor a map with between eight and 12 councilors, and said the city should consider a dedicated "downtown ward," which an independent group has proposed.
Weinberger reminded councilors that the current voting system was "no one's first choice" but was the only map that received majority approval from councilors and the public at the time.

"I don't think we should quickly cast aside the possibility that that could happen again, especially given the divergent views we've heard tonight," the mayor said. "It may be that the most achievable political outcome is to make modest changes to the current system to get us back into alignment."

Finally on Monday, councilors unanimously approved an agreement to pay police dispatchers higher wages if there are fewer staff available to work shifts.

According to a memo from Human Resources Director Kerin Durfee, staffing levels in the department's civilian dispatch unit "have dropped so low as to become untenable." Full staffing is considered 12 employees, but only seven people are on the roster; if two more leave, Durfee wrote, the city may have to remove sworn police officers from patrol to fill vacant shifts.

Police dispatchers are members of AFSCME, the city's largest employee union. Like the other bargaining units, the AFSCME contract is set to expire in June and is currently being negotiated. But "the issue of staffing in dispatch is so urgent that it warrants an agreement now," Durfee wrote.

Under the agreement, the city will pay dispatchers an additional $2 to $4 per hour if there are fewer than 12 full-time staffers available to work shifts. The police department budget will cover the estimated maximum $58,240 cost. The agreement expires on June 30.

Durfee said dispatchers' jobs have become more complicated due to the reduction in police staffing prompted by a June 2020 city council resolution. As officers left, acting Chief Jon Murad implemented a "priority response plan" which dictates the types of calls officers can respond to immediately and which calls have to wait. Explaining this to callers is "perhaps [the] most difficult" part of dispatchers' jobs, Durfee wrote.

Watch the full meeting below, courtesy of Town Meeting TV: