by Kira Corasanti, for Community News Service
More than 50 years, a slew of roadblocks and $45 million later, the controversial Champlain Parkway is set to push forward along Burlington’s southern edge.
A federal court judge in May discarded activists’ lawsuit to stop the project, giving Burlington the green light to begin building, and city officials have wasted no time beginning part of the road set to open next year. But people in the diverse communities along the construction path feel left in the lurch with worries of wildlife displacement and increased traffic — and they’re wondering what’s next.
“It’s crazy — it’s absolutely crazy,” said Steve Goodkind, head of the Friends of Pine Street group, which led the lawsuit. “I think it’s a complete mess. A disaster at every level, for any of the wildlife and natural areas, for any of the people.”
Initially known as the Southern Connector, the project dates back to the early 1960s. Later it’d be branded the “road to nowhere,” as work sputtered across the next several decades in the face of legal challenges.
Planners once imagined the parkway as a four-lane, high-speed highway, but its new design boasts a 25 mph, two-lane street with bike lanes. The idea is to transition traffic from the primary routes of I-189 and Shelburne Road to Pine Street, which officials believe will divert commuters and through-traffic away from the city center and improve safety near the thoroughfares.
The project was originally supposed to go straight to I-189. But residents along the construction route and social justice groups opposed that plan, which would have cut a line through the neighborhood of Maple and King streets — the most ethnically diverse in the state, according to court documents — and raised concerns about safety, traffic and wildlife impact.
When residents launched their court case in 2019, officials looked instead to break the parkway into two separate projects that would begin at the interstate, go north from Home and Lakeside avenues and then east onto Pine and Main streets.
That’s still the plan. Along with bike lanes it is set to include mixed-use paths, crosswalks, intersections and public transit shelters.
But people worry it’ll be harder to get around on foot with the parkway splitting up streets. The plan creates dead-ends on Briggs Street, Morse Place, Lyman Avenue and Ferguson Avenue, and it will turn Pine Street’s intersection with Queen City Park Road into a dead-end cul-de-sac. People have objected that the move would cut people in the city off from Lake Champlain, Red Rocks Park, Oakledge Park and the major thoroughfare, U.S. Route 7.
And fears persist that more traffic will heighten risks to pedestrians, pollute the neighborhood with noise and emissions and scare off local wildlife.
A South End story, concerns of environmental racism
Burlington’s South End was once dominated by heavy industries before it became a bustling center for arts and culture in the city. The area’s crowded residential neighborhoods now sit next to an eclectic spread of buildings, like art studios in old factories and small-scale retail outlets. In turn, hip purple-painted units with pollinator gardens out front are springing up in the neighborhood.
A shift in land use from industrial to commercial typically results in increased vehicle traffic for the area. Officials hope the Champlain Parkway will relieve the side effects of congested transportation and provide an efficient access route for new traffic.
But those hopes come with worries from activists and residents about the unintended effects of road-building in residential areas, especially those neglected throughout American history.
Officials and planners across the country have been known to build landfills, mines, major roadways and other polluting projects in communities where most residents are people of color. As a result, these communities suffer greater rates of health problems attendant on hazardous pollutants — a dynamic often called environmental racism.
Interstate construction, spurred by the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, is a commonly cited example. Those highways were built to connect commuters to offices in the cities that many white professionals had earlier fled. Officials weren’t interested in making them take the scenic route: Those roadways often sliced straight through majority-Black and brown neighborhoods, entrenching racial divides and elevating respiratory risks.
These underlying threads ring close to home.
Census data in 2009 identified the residential portion of the Maple and King streets neighborhood as a minority population given the substantially higher percentage of minority residents compared to the city and county. More recent data, from 2018, says the percentage of minority residents in the neighborhood is only marginally higher than the citywide average.
But because of the neighborhood’s history and the results of outreach efforts, the state determined that Maple and King should be considered a minority community subject to a National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, analysis.
As part of the mandated analyses, citizens had a chance to share their thoughts in public comment periods. But of the 22 speakers at the public meeting in 2019, only three lived in the Maple and King neighborhood, city records show. And of the 100 or so people who showed up to the sole public comment meeting in 2021, only six lived in the neighborhood, according to federal documents.
“You brought in all these translators to help people from those neighborhoods to understand the project, to comment on the project,” said Burlington resident Laura Waters at the public comment meeting in 2021. “But there’s no one here, and you’ve got one meeting. So where are the people that we are supposed to be providing outreach to discuss the project, to let them express their concerns about the project?”
Officials had mailed notices of the meetings to some 800 people in the neighborhood and its census tract ahead of time, city documents say.
So, feeling unheard, activists with the Friends of Pine Street group filed a lawsuit to halt the project in June 2019.
Attorneys with Vermont Law School’s Environmental Justice Clinic submitted legal briefs in support of the group, as well as for the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance and Conservation Law Foundation.
The parkway would decrease traffic from the more affluent, majority-white neighborhoods in the South End by as much as 72% while increasing traffic by as much as 37% in the majority-nonwhite Maple and King neighborhood, according to one brief.
“While this project has been in the works for decades, there were changes that were not subject to an adequate review under NEPA,” said Dale Azaria, vice president of environmental justice for the Conservation Law Foundation, in an interview after the judge’s decision. “In particular NEPA requires an accounting of environmental justice issues and that wasn’t done, especially as the project changed over time.”
In the court case, the city and federal government contested activists’ claims. Officials said the project wouldn’t have a disproportionate impact on nonwhite people specifically — and District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford agreed.
Echoing an updated NEPA review from 2021, Crawford said in his ruling that while the neighborhood had a slightly higher proportion of minority residents, “the project will not cause disproportionately high and adverse effects on any minority populations.”
Although the area is forecast to see an increase in traffic because of the parkway, any new emissions or noise pollution would barely cusp state air quality and pollution control limits, officials have said.
Some don’t buy that. “They’re trying to convince us that the air quality in the neighborhood is going to be reduced or stay the same. With the amount of traffic coming in, it’s absolutely ridiculous,” said the Rev. Mark Hughes in a 2020 public meeting. A vocal critic of the parkway, Hughes has been involved in numerous racial justice groups in Vermont, one of which supported the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
According to a NEPA analysis done in 2020, daily traffic volumes on the section of Pine Street between Lakeside Avenue and Maple Street are estimated to increase by about 1,400 vehicles per day (a 9% increase) because of the project. During peak hours, traffic on this section is estimated to increase by 260 vehicles (20%) in the morning and by 235 vehicles (16%) in the evening.
But officials say the project is supposed to improve the flow of traffic by speeding up traffic signals, increasing the number of vehicles the roads can handle, reducing delays and alleviating congestion in these areas.
Despite the loss, some of the plaintiffs remain optimistic — or as Goodkind said, “cautiously pessimistic.”
“We did win some things in a way by the court case. We certainly delayed the project so better things can come out of it,” he said.
Outside the case, in an apparent move to soothe concerns, the city pledged to build a road called the Railyard Enterprise Project. It would steer cars away from Maple and King, directing them instead toward Battery Street, a less densely populated road. Right now the project is still in its scoping phases.
But some don’t have faith in the city’s commitment — particularly because Crawford, in his court decision, said federal funding to support that project isn’t guaranteed. “The historical record that appears in the record demonstrates that the REP is a standalone project that may never be built,” wrote Crawford in the May 16 decision.
Said Goodkind, “The city and us, we’re on the same page on a lot of the stuff. Unfortunately, the feds wouldn’t have it.”
“I think it’s ‘Southern Disconnector,’” he said, riffing on the parkway’s original name, “and they can explain that to the people.”
If the Railyard Enterprise Project doesn’t succeed, all the group’s concerns would remain.
“To me what’s happened is that we’re living in the past,” said Ron Krupp, a member of the Pine Street group. “We’re building more roadways, we’re polluting more.”
Krupp has been advocating against the parkway since the start.
“I used to stand out on the corner of Pine Street and Queen City Park Road with Tony (Reddington, another group member from the start), holding a large sign that said, ‘Pine Street dead-ends here.’ And people were very upset because half of them weren’t even aware.”
Krupp worries about the future of these neighborhoods as he believes the intersections around Pine and Maple streets and Queen City Park Road will become more congested as new stop lights go up.
In addition, the parkway is set to run through the wildlife habitats of the Engelsby and Potash brooks. Concerns around the disruption of wildlife, risks to floodplains and additions to noise and air pollution were all raised by the activists as part of the project’s environmental impact. The project will involve clearing between about 5 acres of forested habitat.
The 2019 NEPA review surveyed the bat and critical plant species in the area. Experts believe the endangered northern long-eared bat may nest in the area in the summers, and according to the review, if the species is found in there it will trigger state conservation guidelines.
But the review did not take into account any other species that could be affected in the area. The Engelsby and Potash watersheds provide habitat for many common species well adapted to urban and suburban environments, such as racoons, red-tailed hawk and black-nosed dace, according to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.
“The stream is completely disrupted — you see animals in neighborhoods down there that were chased out of the area already. They’re gone now and not coming back,” Krupp observed.
Yet if the project is stalled further, the city and the state would owe the Federal Highway Commision more money than some argue its worth.
“Since the project needed federal highway approval, there was pressure to get construction started,” said Ken Roby, the city’s public outreach officer for the parkway. “There was lots of federal pressure for federal dollars.”
The drawn-out history of the parkway has drained federal, state and city pockets throughout the years. According to a 2022 press release from the city, Burlington is paying for 2% of the project, roughly $36 million. If changed or stalled, Burlington might end up with the short end of the stick, having to pay back state and federal agencies for the money they already piped into the project, roughly $45 million.
“I don’t know how much money the lives in this community are worth,” said Hughes at the 2020 meeting on the plan. “If they can’t get it done through (the Railyard Enterprise Project), then kill it.”
What happens next?
As the 60-day appeal period for the judge’s ruling has come to an end, it doesn’t seem the plaintiffs in the case have solidified any legal plans moving forward.
Some in the coalition think their movement may have lost steam after its initial leader, the well-known local activist Reddington, died last year. Goodkind took over as manager for the group after Reddington’s death.
“At the end, things got grumpy,” said Carolyn Bates, a long-standing member of the coalition.
Some members speculate that the group had financial problems that prevented them from continuing to pay its attorney in the lawsuit, Cindy Hill, as the case moved forward.
“The lawyer couldn’t continue to challenge in court the current design, and I think they were running out of money,” said Krupp.
Hill stopped working with the Friends of Pine Street group soon after the lawsuit ended in May.
“It was a little sloppy,” said Bates. “Some of us signed off on some things, and others didn’t. She claimed that we owed her all this money.” Hill declined to comment.
So what’s next for the coalition?
“It doesn’t make sense to keep fighting it in court,” said Goodkind. “It’s now up to us to make sure they keep their commitment … We are better off just working at the political level.”
From the beginning many coalition members advocated for the use of roundabouts — known to improve safety, lessen idling and lead to more efficient traffic in clogged areas. But they fear the city won’t look at the idea.
“Stoplights create idling — we’re polluting more,” Bates said. “The city won’t even consider roundabouts.”
The city says otherwise. According to the 2020 NEPA analysis, there is little room in Burlington’s narrow streets to create roundabouts. Trucks and buses would not be able to follow the same circular traffic patterns as cars.
“We are evaluating intersections for roundabouts, and we will continue to evaluate if roundabouts are the preferred,” said Chapin Spencer, director of public works. “There are a number of locations that are challenging to fit roundabouts in Burlington’s streets. You need the right grade, the right space, and we need a design that can reasonably accommodate it.”
Others are still worried about access for pedestrians and bicycles — and their safety — on the new parkway. City officials have said that the street and public right-of-way width in the Maple and King neighborhood are not wide enough to provide protected bicycle lanes in accordance with state and federal standards.
Officials are confident the project won’t introduce new safety issues. “Bicycle safety on Pine Street will be improved by the Champlain Parkway,” Roby said. “New bicycle markings will be provided where bike lanes are not feasible.”
Spencer pointed out how “this project started out as a four-lane, high-speed divided highway, and it is now a 25 mph, two-lane multi-modal city street.”
“This is not the original proposal that was put forth,” he added soon after, “and I think frankly we’re all better off that the project wasn’t built early on because it would have been an imposition on the city.”
For those concerned with the dead-ends, officials say several locations along the parkway will maintain east-west connectivity for destinations to Lake Champlain. There will also be a shared-use path connecting the southern end of Pine Street with Route 7 for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Between Home and Lakeside avenues, the newly constructed project will include a shared-use path along one side, landscaped greenbelts and 6-foot-high picket-fencing along both sides. Additional traffic signals and pedestrian crosswalks are also set to go up at Home Avenue, Flynn Avenue, Sears Lane and Lakeside Avenue.
Spencer explained that his department will be having conversations with the city council soon on the next construction phases of the project.
Slated to finish sometime in 2024, construction has begun on Home Avenue and is going to upgrade Lakeside and Pine up to Kilburn Street. The second phase — paving the parkway between the I-189 interchange and Home Avenue and upgrading pedestrian and bike safety on the second half of Pine Street from Kilburne to Main Street — should be completed in 2027.
“There’s a myriad of factors why we were able to —- and why there’s still political will to — continue with what is a good but albeit not perfect project,” said Spencer.
In the meantime, Goodkind is happy to have more time to discuss the Maple and King section of the parkway.
“It didn’t save the wildlife areas, but as far as the environmental justice issues it is very positive,” Goodkind said of the lawsuit and activists’ efforts. “So that’s where the political battle is, will the city have the political will to stick to what it’s going to do?”
“Or it’s just going to turn out it’s just for the optics, just to make everyone think it’s okay, and the city had no intention of doing that,” he said a little later. “I guess we will find that out.”