Motorists are likely to remember the late, great summer of 2010 as much by its soaring temperatures over 90 degrees as by its tortoise-like highway traffic patterns. In the case of stop-and-go traffic, blame it on several high-profile highway and bridge construction projects around the region.
While the Lake Champlain Bridge project may have received the most coverage by news media, there are other transportation-related construction jobs-such as the U.S. Route 7 Pittsford-Brandon corridor and the Route 125/Green Mountain National Forest projects-that likely affected a larger volume of local drivers.
For commuters along U.S. Route 7 in northern Rutland County, the summer just ended was a silly season of traffic delays and clouds of dust along the northern Rutland County corridor.
The project, still underway, was designed to improve pedestrian and vehicular safety as well as to enhance mobility along Route 7 through Pittsford and Brandon.
According to VTrans, the work area encompasses rural and town settings from Pittsford to approximately 0.1 mile south of the Brandon town line. The total project length is nearly 12 miles.
While millions are being spent on Route 7 alone this year, the highway never seems to get the kinds of upgrades most daily drivers would like to see-that is, extended passing lanes, increased highway speeds, and bypasses around congested downtown areas.
We asked John Zicconi, director of planning, outreach, and community affairs for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, several questions about the financing and progress of the Brandon project as well as the future viability of Route 7.
Eagle: What is the estimated total cost of the Brandon/Route 7 phase of the project? When will it be completed?
Zicconi: The contract currently underway has a construction total of $11.3 million, but this is only one phase of six phase project that will improve Route 7 from Brandon village through Pittsford village and a small portion just south of Pittsford village. Total cost of all six phases is estimated at $60 million.
The current construction will be completed next year, but our intention is to run through the six segments one after another. We're not yet sure just how long that will take, but it certainly will take but we are likely talking the better part of a decade if not longer.
The Eagle: How is this cost broken down federal vs. state funding?
Zicconi: The current contract is being done with federal stimulus money, so it is 100 percent federal funds. The other five phases will be the usual 80 percent federal, 20 percent state.
The Eagle: Was this a "stimulus" project or budgeted before the stimulus?
Zicconi: Only the current contract is stimulus. The other five phases will be our usual funding of 80/20 as mentioned above.
The Eagle: What was the main reason for the work just south of Brandon? Was it all safety related?
Zicconi: Safety is one factor. The other is mobility. This 12- mile stretch of Route 7 does not meet modern standards for a major roadway (12-foot travel lanes and 8-foot shoulders) so this project will bring this segment of Route 7 up to modern specifications, which will improve both safety and mobility.
The Eagle: With all the Route 7 work being done, why aren't we seeing more extended passing lanes being created? It seems Route 7 will be just as congested. Is this a false perception?
Zicconi: The project does include three passing lanes, but they are all located further south of the current construction and will be part of future construction contracts.
The Eagle: What is the long range viability of Route 7? Do you see more bypasses-say around Middlebury-in the future? Assuming Vermonters will still want to travel by car, and to support tourism as well as commerce, how can improved vehicular access between Rutland and Burlington be supported by Route 7 without extended multiple lanes for passing and bypasses around bottleneck towns such as Middlebury?
Zicconi: Once we complete the Bennington and Morrisville bypasses in 2012, the days of building bypasses are likely behind us. These projects have long been in our system, and much of the pre-construction money has already been expended.
The combination of the cost of acquiring land, the cost of construction and the inevitable environmental hurdles associated with cutting a new roadway make building bypasses very difficult. This is why we look at roads like Route 7 and assess improvements that can be made that both increase safety and allow traffic to flow better.
The kinds of practical tools at our disposal to improve traffic flow and safety are the addition of strategic passing lanes, shoulder widening, adding turn lanes so turning vehicles do not impede the free flow of the mainline, and installing roundabouts at intersections where they make sense.
In some cases, like through Brandon Village, we can also alter the roadway alignment slightly and improve intersections so that traffic can flow more easily through the heart of town, but people should expect to have to slow down as they travel through downtowns.