Nearly two years after Milton’s Selectboard chose a preferred redesign for one the state’s most dangerous intersections, the state has decided not to fund it.
Vermont Agency of Transportation project manager Patti Coburn delivered the news about the Railroad Street/Middle Road/Route 7 X-shaped intersection at the board’s July 21 meeting.
“We’re constantly looking at what is the best way to provide a safe and reliable transportation system,” Coburn said. “If … one [design] is over $1 million less expensive, we certainly need to consider that regardless of where we are in the process.”
The board chose a “full hourglass” design from a list of four vetted alternatives to replace the dysfunctional junction, No. 75 of 132 high crash locations in Vermont and the top one in Milton, in November 2012.
The configuration envisions two new roads, called northern and southern legs, connecting Middle Road and Railroad Street to Route 7 and includes crosswalks, sidewalks and bike lanes.
Consultants estimated the cost at $2.98 million, not including right-of-way acquisitions, which they warned could be prohibitively costly.
It seems they were right.
Coburn told board members that VTRANS, which funnels federal highway dollars to projects statewide, will fund the “half hourglass,” which builds only the northern leg through property currently occupied by TransParent Computers, for $2.1 million.
The difference could be spent on another transportation project, Coburn told the board.
Although they knew their decision wasn’t the final one, town officials didn’t expect this response from VTRANS. First, Town Manager Brian Palaia said, VTRANS officials sat in on discussions about the intersection and never said the high price tag was a deal-breaker, as board member John Bartlett put it.
Second, the state has actually pledged more money since the design was chosen: It originally promised an 80-20 percent split, and Milton voters approved $800,000 in initial funding on Town Meeting Day 2012. Last summer, VTRANS told the town the project would be fully federally funded, but Coburn said that didn’t indicate an endorsement.
The full hourglass is consistent with town plans, Palaia said: “To turn around now and cut off half of that … sort of defeats the purpose.”
The board’s desired southern leg would bisect land owned by Sotos Papaseraphim, on which sits a vacant building that most recently hosted Vermont Thai Restaurant.
It became clear after board members’ questioning that VTRANS would only fund the half hourglass, unless the scoping study was incorrect in showing that both alternatives adequately address safety concerns.
Commenting on the delay to communicate VTRANS’ decision to the board, Coburn said the intersection redo wasn’t actually plugged into the state capital program until late 2013.
She suggested the board write a letter to the agency’s higher-ups focusing on safety and better expounding on the benefits of the full versus the half hourglass design. Palaia will draft one this month, he said.
Coburn said the town can always build the southern hourglass later, but Selectboard Chairman Darren Adams said he prefers to “do it right the first time.”
Developer Ernie Pomerleau rallied for the full hourglass, too. He spoke of the southern leg’s economic impact not just on his Hannaford plaza, which would adjoin with it, but also to Papaseraphim’s parcel.
“We can’t give up on it just because we’ve got a little pushback.”
– Town Manager Brian Palaia
“This parcel gets demoted,” Pomerleau said, pointing to it on a map. “It’s a money issue, but to not try to address that, you’re going to lose taxes. You’re going to lose economic viability, which isn’t in the traffic analysis. I think that has to be part of the this dialogue.”
He also noted the full hourglass could allow space for a town common.
Adams said the state is looking at the “here-and-now” instead of long-term.
“They may be being a little pennywise and pound foolish,” he said, noting he believes Milton taxpayers would support “a certain degree of land acquisition to make this intersection a true improvement.”
Palaia thinks the disagreement could delay the project, which VTRANS said could already take five to seven years. Asked at what point the town would relent, Palaia said if the agency pushes back considerably, he’ll propose a middle ground of reverting to the 80/20 funding formula for the full hourglass.
The town’s portion would be paid with tax increment financing dollars, he said.
“I don’t think we can just change our minds,” Palaia said. “We thought about this for so long and put time into the decision. We can’t give up on it just because we’ve got a little pushback.”
The board will discuss the item again at its next meeting, Monday, Aug. 4 at 6 p.m. in the town offices’ community room.