What should the 37-mile Chittenden County stretch of Interstate-89 look like in 30 years?

That is the question the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission (CCRPC) hopes to answer as part of its Chittenden County I-89 2050 Study.

On Thursday, Jan. 30, attendees had the chance to weigh-in to help shape the future of the I-89 corridor at a public meeting held in South Burlington City Hall.

The approximately $526,000 state-funded study began in June and is anticipated to conclude in November 2021, with an identified preferred alternative, implementation plan and final report.

“This study is to look at issues on our interstate and our interchanges and determine some solutions and develop a vision of where we want to be with this corridor in 2050,” said CCRPC Project Manager Eleni Churchill.

The study will examine existing road conditions, develop a vision and goals for 2050 and create a number of alternative solutions addressing those goals, according to Churchill. In addition, it will assess the environmental and financial implications of proposed alternatives and take a look at bike and pedestrian routes near I-89.

“It’s really a holistic view and a roadmap for what should the interstate look like in the year 2050,” said South Burlington Public Works Director Justin Rabidoux, who is a member of the study’s technical committee. “I don’t think anyone has any preconceived notions that it’s either going to be a widening or adding interchanges or accommodating for autonomous vehicles ... we’re having this discussion with the public … to see what are the factors that are important to people.”

What’s driving the study

According to Churchill, the current study continues work from the commission’s 2018 Environment, Community, Opportunity and Sustainability plan (ECOS) and Metropolitan Transportation studies, which form a long-term plan for the future of transportation, safety and environmental goals in the region.

A volume study shows current annual average daily traffic rates that will, if current trends continue, grow between Exits 12 and 18 over the next 30 years.

“We’re going to see vehicle growth, if the trends continue,” Churchill said. “There are different rates of growth of traffic for different segments and between different exits.”

The largest projected growth is between exits 14 and 15 where current annual average daily traffic count is around 55,000 and the 2050 projected annual average daily traffic is over 70,000.

“By 2050, ... if the trends continue, we’ll be at capacity between [Exits]14 and 15,” Churchill said. “Cars wouldn’t move anymore during peak hours … so, that was something we really wanted to investigate.”

One fix CCRPC plans to investigate is widening the interstate in that area or adding/expanding interchanges.

“We’re going to look at widening – mainly between 14 and 15 because that’s where we’re going to see the major growth in traffic … but it doesn’t mean that, that is what we’re going to be recommending,” she said, noting that a variety of alternatives will be explored.

The commission must consider if adding capacity in one area of the interstate simply moves traffic to another area, likewise it has to look at the land development impact.

“If we see that we are pushing growth to areas we don’t want to, let’s say rural areas, then it’s something that’s going to be against the goals of this study. Even if it improves congestion,” Churchill said. “You need to weigh everything and find the balance appropriate to move forward.”

The idea of expanding the interstate or adding/expanding interchanges has concerned some community members. In an opinion piece, Richard Watts, co-founder of Sustainable Transportation Vermont and director of the Center for Research on Vermont at UVM, contends that adding capacity to the interstate would increase the number single-occupant vehicles. His article posits instead what might happen if the money for the I-89 2050 study were invested in researching/supporting public transportation options.

But predicting the future of the interstate requires examining every alternative, according to Rabidoux.

“I understand the pushback on the solution that only focuses on widening the intersection. Certainly, that would never just be the recommendation,” Rabidoux said. “But, by the same token, a recommendation of solely relying on [public] transit and investing in bike shares and car shares will never be the only solution that works.”

“You have to have different solutions to different parts of the population,” he continued. “There’s no silver bullet.”

Currently, CCRCP invests in public transportation – with a $400,000 annual contribution to Green Mountain Transit for transit planning – and contributions to bike and pedestrian infrastructure, Churchill said.

Both Churchill and Rabidoux say the plan can be adjusted as the study advances.

“We’re going to have some triggers that are going to tell us if those improvements will be needed,” Churchill said. “If these trends don’t continue, then we’re going to come back and say, ‘Okay, things change, we need to relook at this.’”

Community Forum comments

The regional planning commission heard from a variety of people at the forum including those concerned about the environmental impact of any future additions to I-89, as well as those who were eager to explore changes to the road.

One attendee shared an interest in a bicycle lane along the interstate, while another suggested creating or designating a dedicated bus lane. Other attendees suggested continuing the pursuit of a bike and pedestrian bridge over Exit 14, as well as reducing “destination parking” availability to encourage people to carpool or take public transportation.

Some attendees were in favor of expanding the interstate or adding/expanding interchanges to increase safety by reducing congestion and weaving.

“Getting feedback from stakeholders with different perspectives, it’s extremely helpful,” Churchill said of the meeting. “From the people that basically want just to find ways to use our interstate less and get people out of their single-occupancy vehicles … to the developers and to the business people that [are] looking at things from a slightly different lens, but it’s good to hear everything.”

Future meetings for public outreach regarding the Chittenden County I-89 2050 Study will be held Feb. 13 in Williston and March 11 in Winooski. For more information, including a public feedback survey, visit https://envision89.com/public-meeting or www.ccrpcvt.org.

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