Saturday, August 2, 2014

Champlain Parkway and the Beatles


…or will the Champlain Parkway make Burlington the laughing stock of the Vermont walk and bike community (the driving community too!)?

Burlington’s Champlain Parkway highway project dates back a half-century and cleared a hurdle this week, the Vermont Environmental Court agreed with an opponent it creates a congested intersection at their property but still gave the $40 million roadway a go ahead.

Oh, if only one obsolete intersection existed in the Parkway design originally begun before Mayor Miro Weinberger and some City councilors were born!  The mid-60s featured the first Beatles U.S. gig on the Ed Sullivan Show and an American troop buildup in a place called Vietnam.  The Parkway idea continued I 189 as a four lane divided highway from Shelburne Road across the base of Pine Street then a swing northward just east of the railroad connecting with Battery Street at the Maple Street intersection—all part of a scheme to push through this corridor to the Beltline, and finally encircling the City in an interstate “quality” roadway along the now abandoned Circumferential roadway.

Car traffic even increased by over half in Vermont in the 1980s but by 1990 when traffic on most Burlington streets peaked and then began a now 25-year slow decline the car travel world completely changed.  New England car travel likely declines this decade and total U.S. car travel peaked in 2008.  Now for many reasons we all seek to reduce car trips, reduce car travel and encourage in our urban areas walking, bicycling, transit—and yes, provide incentives not to drive.

A hazardous waste site and changing times ended the grand Parkway design to eventually place the City inside a 25-mile traffic circle and the Parkway shrank to 0.7 mile of new two-lane roadway ending at Lakeside Avenue at Innovation Center, the former GE plant complex.  Now the balance of the Parkway runs east on Lakeside Avenue then north on Pine Street ending at the Kilburn Street intersection opposite the former Vermont Transit terminal.

Over the decades—particularly since 2000—public attention to the Parkway details and the evolution of roadway design, particularly for walk and bike modes, got completely lost in the shuffle.  A walk/bike advocate left in shock after recently viewing the current design of just Pine Street and Lakeside --neither Lakeside or Pine features a shred of quality walk or bike infrastructure!  No bike lanes on either Pine or Lakeside, a degradation of the west side Pine Street sidewalk to shared space with cyclists, and for the brave cyclist the prospect of sharing the vehicle lanes with hopes painted “sharrows” afford sufficient safety.  And not a single roundabout intersection like that at the upper end of Locust St. on Shelburne Street adjacent to Christ the King school grounds set for construction in 2017.  Properly designed single lane roundabouts provide the highest safety for all modes and least delay.  The City’s own analysis confirms signals instead of roundabouts increase the daily worker commute by 3.5 minutes and from peak delay alone wastes 6,000 gallons of gas annually at each signal. 

Ironically the continuous Parkway lack of quality walk/bike facilities compares to world class long term design found in the North Avenue corridor planning approved in July by the study Advisory Committee featuring protected bike lanes (cycle track) the length of the corridor and adoption of safe walk and bike mode roundabouts replacing three of the seven signalized intersections (also improving safety and service for cars too!).  One can look in vain for similar walk/bike facilities on the Parkway.

The 0.7 mile “new” Parkway roadway already questioned for safety for those who walk and bike includes new signals at Home, Pine and Lakeside (found by the Court to be congested) intersections.  The “new” Parkway section offers a shared walk/bike pathway on west side, again creating conflicts and inferior safety for walk and bike modes.  One sure way not to encourage urban bicycling is building shared walk and bike facilities aside busy streets.  And, of course, the Lakeside neighborhood faces increased driving time to get to downtown over and above a reduced quality walking and bicycling environment.   The Parkway going from four lanes to the two-lane current design offered ample room to fit separate walk and bike facilities on the new section.  

Changing to protected bike lanes—cycle track—and sidewalks presents the obvious best choice.  And replacing signals with single lane roundabouts, a choice recommended by an independent engineering panel and rejected by the City a decade ago, meets the for top quality safety and service.  In other words, follow the blueprint already as developed in the North Avenue plan. 

Worry about re-design and a possible Act 250 amendment cannot take second place to the needs of the South End neighborhoods and the safe all-modes movement of residents, workers and visitors.  Walker safety at roundabouts?  In spite of some claiming pedestrians vulnerable at roundabouts, the mix of single and two lane roundabouts in the U.S. numbering about four thousand have yet to result in a single fatality spanning a period of over 24 years.  (The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found in a 2001 study U.S. roundabouts cut serious and fatal injuries by about 90%, and AARP advocates conversion of signals to roundabouts as seniors are particularly vulnerable to serious injuries at signal or sign control intersections.)
There remains the fact that the Parkway literally cuts off the end of Pine Street severing the current walk/bike connection of that neighborhood from the Kmart Plaza area.  There is that little question of cost—the Parkway cost estimate now reaches $40 million and continues to grow as time goes on.  Still, for the City, re-design for quality walk and bike (and cars too!) infrastructure with a cooperative Vermont Agency of Transportation (VAOT) can and must be done.  Fortunately the City share of project costs is 2% so from the financial standpoint the City has a lot to gain instead of losing on just about every count building the current design.  The question must be asked how can one spend $40 million in an urban neighborhood and not install at least a tiny bit of quality walk bike infrastructure?  Well, the Parkway now shows exactly how to accomplish that very feat!

A sea change in the direction of urban development occurred since the 1960s when the suburbs around Burlington grew, Burlington population treaded water, and households favored car transportation for all trips.  That trend reversed with less than ten percent of the population now desiring to live where access to services and shopping can only occur by car.  Yes, Vermonters of all ages now want to live in downtowns and urban areas where services and social life can take place without car dependence.  And, with the baby-boomers aging out, Vermont and Burlington anticipates modest overall population growth while during the 2000-2030 Census projection shows those aged 65 and above growing from 12 percent of the population to 24 percent statewide—for Burlington this means an increase of more than 200 persons a year added to our senior set.   Now the “Maple Street neighborhood” looks to improve their quality of life, reduce the impact of traffic and increasingly rely on meeting their transportation needs without resorting to car ownership.  As now designed the Parkway clearly dims that possibility.

It is not surprising then division in the neighborhood and City continues on whether or not to build the Parkway and if so, how to meet the new demands for the project being both walkable and bikable for affected residents.  Some want the project to die, others want it to go forward, and informal discussions at the Burlington Walk Bike Council point to insuring the best possible walk/bike infrastructure if the project does move ahead.  That infrastructure does not exist in the current design.  The Circumferential Highway—the City was first to oppose later phases of that project—cancelling resulted in a waste of $40 million of transportation dollars according to Vermont Digger (VAOT Secretary Searles this week put the number at $32 million).  Does the City really want to repeat that same level of waste by proceeding as designed on a roadway project within its own borders?

In the mid-1960s Jackie Gleason and Lawrence Welk shows held forth on Saturday night TV—and Burlington began the now half century planning for a Champlain Parkway.  Revised designs can make substantial improvements beneficial to all modes and the neighborhoods. Now Burlington faces a current design which if built likely assures the Queen City becoming the laughing stock of the Vermont walk and bike community while at the same time forcing unnecessarily long commute times for workers as well as added travel congestion for the Lakeside and Maple Street neighborhoods—quite an accomplishment for a $40 million dollar taxpayer investment! 

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