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January 19, 2010

Four Decades Later, Burlington Wins Approval for "Southern Connector"

DSC05185 Burlington Public Works Director Steve Goodkind remembers working on the "Southern Connector" highway project as a young municipal engineer 30 years ago.

On Tuesday, he announced that the city has won long-sought approval from the feds that will let the stalled highway project go forward.

Goodkind (pictured) joined Mayor Bob Kiss and Ernie Blais from the Federal Highway Administration at a press conference to announce that the city has received a positive Record of Decision from the feds for the connector, now referred to as the Champlain Parkway.

The approval lets Burlington move to the final stages of planning and design for the connector, a 2.5-mile spur meant to re-route truck traffic from South End neighborhoods through the Pine Street corridor to downtown. The $24 million project must obtain an Act 250 permit before the two-year construction phase can begin sometime in summer 2011.

The connector will build off the unfinished four-line highway that branches off I-189 under Shelburne Road (Route 7), an aborted phase of the project that cost upwards of $30 million in planning and design. From there, the Champlain Parkway will become a two-lane boulevard, sweep around the end of Pine Street and along the railroad line, jog east at Lakeview Avenue and head north on Pine Street to downtown.

DSC05194 Seven to eight traffic signals will be installed and will replace stop signs in several locations, including Pine and Maple streets, and Pine and King streets. Infrastructure beneath Pine Street will be rebuilt and Share the Road signs will go up to encourage bike traffic, Goodkind said.

In a former iteration, the connector would have gone over the barge canal and connected to Battery Street, but that route was scrapped after contamination was discovered there.

"This is not designed to bring new traffic into town," Goodkind told reporters, even as he acknowledged that Pine Street traffic could increase by as much as 20 percent. "It's designed to get truck traffic out of neighborhoods."

When the project was conceived in 1965, planners envisioned a four-lane highway on stilts cutting through the Queen City's South End, with a cloverleaf at Union Station, Mayor Kiss said. What the feds approved Tuesday is a far more modest and pragmatic solution to the problem of tractor-trailers rumbling through residential neighborhoods, the mayor said.

DSC05178 "What it will do is remove truck traffic out of the South End," said Kiss (pictured at left), "and that's been an ongoing problem in terms of quality of life. People over there will see this as a very positive step."

City Council President Bill Keogh, who represents the ward the connector will run through, said the project will be good for neighbors on streets like Flynn Avenue who are sick of trucks rumbling by, and good for businesses along Pine Street that need efficient deliveries.

However, Keogh cautioned that the connector is by no means "a slam dunk."

"This is not a perfect solution for the thing," Keogh said, who noted that the City Council must approve construction contracts for the project. "Absolutely not."

Keogh said the project doesn't fulfill all the area's traffic needs, such as turning lanes at the congested intersection of Pine and Maple streets that would let through traffic flow more smoothly down Maple and onto Battery Street.

For another thing, Keogh said the traffic nightmare will improve for some South End residents, such as those living on Flynn Avenue and Home Avenue, but probably get worse for others — perhaps those on Briggs Street, who will now have truck traffic diverted practically through their back yards.

"There are probably 17 homes there that will have some effect, maybe hear some traffic noise," Keogh said. "This is not a slam dunk by a long shot. But this project has been on the books a long, long time, and those people who moved there I'm sure are aware that this project is on the hook.

"I'm sure they're not going to be very happy," Keogh adds. "But a lot of people are not happy now with all the truck traffic on Flynn Avenue and Home Avenue."

As someone who lives in the South End and walks to work every day along Pine Street, I'm wondering what impact this will have on the city's walkability. Pine Street's sidewalks (where there exit) are a mess, especially in the winter. Will there be any effort on improving the sidewalks along Pine Street? Additionally, there are too few crosswalks along Pine Street--there isn't even a crosswalk anywhere close to the bus terminal! Will there be more crosswalks added? Heck, drivers rarely stop for pedestrians at the current crosswalks along Pine Street. Hopefully this new connector doesn't encourage parking lot after parking lot, making it even less walkable.

The parenthetical was supposed to read "(where they exist)" not "(where there exit)".

I forgot to add one important detail: The feds are funding 95% of the project, while the state is picking up 3% and the city 2%.

Bradley: Working on getting you answers about crosswalks and sidewalks on Pine Street.

Bradley, here is your answer re: crosswalks, courtesy of Burlington Dept. of Public Works, via mayoral aide Joe Reinert:

The Champlain Parkway project will be replacing all sidewalks on Pine Street between Lakeside Avenue and Main Street and adding new sidewalk where there is none on the west side of Pine Street in front of the Maltex building. There will be an enhanced pedestrian crosswalk at Howard Street. We are not sure yet if this will include lights, a ped activated signal, signing or all of the above but we will address the crossing at Pine Street. We're also considering a crosswalk in the vicinity of Locust Street as well. In addition, the newly signalized intersections at Maple and King Streets will include pedestrian activated buttons.

Andy: Thanks for looking into that! I always thought it was silly that there's no crosswalk at the bus terminal (or anywhere close to it). What they're proposing is better than nothing, but I still worry that this will negatively impact the walkability of the South End and especially the ability to cross Pine Street.

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