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September 20, 2012

Weinberger Pitches New Road Connecting Pine and Battery Streets

DSC07736Editor's note: This post is by Seven Days contributor Kevin J. Kelley.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger unveiled a proposal Thursday to link Pine and Battery streets through what's now a privately-owned rail yard — a plan that appears as sketchy as it is bold.

The loosely formulated plan to build a network of car, truck, pedestrian, bicyle and transit connections through property partly owned by Vermont Rail System is intended, in part, to address some local residents' objections concerning the King/Maple streets terminus of the long-stalled Champlain Parkway.

At a press conference held in the busy and noisy rail yard, Weinberger had literally lined up many of the political players essential to moving the project forward. On hand to voice support were Secretary of Transportation Brian Searles; Democratic city council President Joan Shannon (who noted she has long been an opponent of the Champlain Parkway); Progressive councilor Rachel Siegel; and real-estate developer Ernie Pomerleau, a regular contributor to Republican candidates.

The distribution of costs for the plan seems to be firmly in place as well. The Federal Highway Administration has agreed to pay 80 percent of the price, Weinberger said, while VTrans, the state's transportation agency, is pledging to push the legislature to approve a 10-percent share.

Not lined up, however, is a specific way for the city to cover its 10-percent share of a project for which there is no cost estimate.

The mayor suggested that the tax-increment financing mechanism might be used, although, he cautioned, the envisioned road would not run through either of the existing TIF districts in Burlington.

Vermont Rail Systems has also not given its approval for the project. Weinberger said the venue for the press conference indicated that the railroad is "open" to discussing its possible participation in the plan. As a candidate last February, Weinberger spoke of redeveloping the rail yard as a long-term project. No railway official joined the press conference line-up, however.

Vermont Railway spokeswoman Mary Anne Michaels did praise Weinberger's "collaborative approach" in sketching the plan. She said in a telephone interview following the news conference that "we understand there are many details and issues to be worked through, but we're confident we can find a solution to all the problems."

A timetable for the project, which is separate from the Champlain Parkway plan, also cannot be offered at present, Weinberger said. VTrans chief Searles bristled at a reporter's suggestion that it could take "a decade" to complete this "Railyard Enterprise Project," but he declined to project a date in the less-distant future. "It's not a monster of a project," Searles said, adding, "We will be pushing this very hard."

Railyard Enterprise Project Concept DiagramThe mayor was unable to say when construction might get underway on the Champlain Parkway itself, which, he noted, was first proposed nearly 50 years ago. Legal obstacles remain in the way of the road that would cut through Burlington's South End from Interstate 189 and eventually merge with a redesigned Pine Street. "Stay tuned," he urged in response to a question as to when Champlain Parkway construction might get underway.

Weinberger also sidestepped a reporter's question about what would happen if the Champlain Parkway does get built and the road through the rail yard does not. Under that scenario, the congestion issues causing concern in the King Street neighborhood would remain unresolved. Allan Hunt, an organizer of local opposition to the Champlain Parkway, did not respond to an email message requesting comment on the rail yard road plan.

The "concept diagram" (pictured) on display at the press conference is subject to potentially thorough revisions, Community and Economic Development Office director Peter Owens noted. In response to a reporter's observation that the route of the road cuts straight through the South Champlain Street building housing Seven Days, Owens and Weinberger offered assurance that the plan is not near a stage where demolitions would even be imagined.

Despite these many broad gaps in the proposal, the mayor denied that it is premature to present it to the public and, next month, to the city council, which will be asked to give a go-ahead for a "scoping" exercise. Weinberger said a long series of discussions in recent months with many parties did reveal "a new desire to try to find a way forward together."

Photos by Kevin J. Kelley

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