Monday, February 9, 2015

Champlain Parkway: Burlington's Road to Nowhere

An Early History

By Greg Guma, excerpted from The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution, Greg’s 1989 book about Vermont politics in the 1970s and 1980s. This excerpt concerning the Champlain Parkway is released to provide more historical context for the Feb. 10 AARP Forum on livability at the Unitarian Church. To find out more about the Parkway's complex history: The Mayor and the Connector, published in 2012 by
In the grand scheme of Vermont transportation planning, it was to be just a short hop – a “connection” between the Interstate highway and the downtown business district -- and its purpose was to ease access for shoppers. When it was designed in the early 1970s, it had been projected to cost a mere $11 million, and the state and federal governments promised to pick up 90 percent of the cost.
But the Southern Connector (now known as the Champlain Parkway) turned out to be a much more complicated and expensive roadway than anyone imagined. By the late 1980s, the price tag had reached $50 million. The environmental problems that were associated with running cars and trucks over a former toxic dump, discovered under the route of the road, seemed critical. Even with a modified design, neighborhoods were expected to be cut off from the waterfront. And access plans still failed to satisfy the concerns of nearby home and business owners.
Yet over the years it had become an inevitability, and a political non-issue. In the 1980s, for the business community, it was an essential ingredient for continued downtown “vitality,” one that would keep Burlington commercially competitive. For Mayor Sanders, its construction would be one of a long list of accomplishments, an “attractive parkway” that would relieve traffic jams on smaller roads. Though many things changed after Sanders became mayor, whether to build the Connector was not one of them.
When Sanders first ran for mayor in 1981, he expressed solid opposition to the so-called boulevard. His allies on the issue were neighborhood residents; his opponents were virtually all the local powers that be. Fidelity Mutual, owner of the urban renewal area in the heart of downtown, warned that prospects for completion of its $100 million project would be bleak until “the bulldozers were moving in the South End.” The City’s Planning Commission, Regional Planning Commission, Chamber of Commerce, State Transportation Department, Governor Snelling, and Lt. Gov. Madeleine Kunin were all in favor of it.
Why were the power brokers so adamant? Back in 1976, Peg Garland, chairwoman of the Burlington Planning Commission, had explained the reasons in a confidential memo to Mayor Paquette. “So many of the projects developing in downtown Burlington are contingent on proper access to the city,” she wrote. Already worried that construction might not even begin until 1980, she counseled, “Gordon, I don’t believe our city can wait that long for this vital link. We must take bold action, and you are in the driver’s seat.”
Just how bold their actions were did not become known until years later, when city documents revealed that there had been a virtual conspiracy to complete the project. At least one state senator, Thomas Crowley, and City Clerk Frank Wagner had apparently been prepared to bend the rules in order to push the pet project through.
Their problem was the state legislature, which had passed a law stating that local communities requesting highway money for roads had to secure their local share within 18 months of making an application. But the late 1970s weren’t an ideal time to ask for money from Burlington voters. Opponents of the Connector were raising questions, and a bond vote would likely have been turned down.
To avoid that problem, Wagner wrote a letter to state officials in 1977: A bond vote had already been passed, he told them, so the 18-month requirement had been met. For several years, no one noticed his misstatement. Not until 1981, after Sanders arrived in City Hall, was the letter discovered, along with the city’s failure to secure funds in time. Wagner resigned and a lawsuit followed.
A bond vote was finally held in 1979. After he was elected, Sanders tried seriously to alter the design and route, but he couldn’t affect the plans. As the city’s chief fiscal officer, however, he looked at the tax base and, like his predecessor, concluded that the Connector was a necessary “incentive” for future commercial investors. Ultimately, he capitulated. He later said he “took pride” in having found a solution – a connector with slightly improved access for residents – that satisfied everyone. Following his lead, many Progressives came to embrace the standard view: the Connector would make the city competitive with suburbia.
Why were so many well-placed people so adamant about the Connector for so long? Back in the 1960s, a waterfront highway, or some variation that would divert traffic and make Burlington more accessible to visitors, looked wonderful on paper. The project was considered necessary to insure Burlington’s commercial competitiveness within the region. In those days, conventional wisdom said that growth would continue indefinitely. Factors such as environmental costs and neighborhood objections were secondary to the expected economic benefits.
Another reason was that vested interests supported the project. Some were land speculators; others, like General Electric, wished to ease their own traffic problems – at public expense. Various designers, construction firms, and developers had stakes. If the Connector wasn’t built, many of those who had invested in it stood to lose.
And still another was simply short-sightedness. People were tired of traffic jams ion the South End, and the Connector seemed a simple solution. Sacrificing one small part of the city, went this logic, would make it possible to drive in and out of downtown somewhat faster.
A final reason was pride. City and state leaders had been fighting for the project as a “sign of commitment” for too many years to simply give up. Millions had been spend on surveys, designers, land purchases, court fights, hearings, and more designers – all before the bulldozers began to move.

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