What’s up with that blighted stretch of pavement in Burlington’s South End? The 25-year-old, $30 million, three-quarter-mile “Southern Connector” may qualify as the world’s most expensive skate park and dog walk. This road to nowhere, now being reclaimed by nature, also serves as a monument to bad planning, wasteful spending and car-crazed America.
More than 20 homes were destroyed in the 1970s and ’80s to make way for a road that drivers have never used. And an existing city street parallel to the project’s right of way has been allowed to deteriorate into a muddy, rutted track. Truck traffic has gotten worse on surrounding residential avenues, as have rush-hour tailbacks at the north end of Pine Street.
But the Southern Connector — now renamed the Champlain Parkway — may not be dead. Last summer the federal government, which is picking up 95 percent of a bill that may ultimately reach $55 million, approved a scaled-back redesign that consists mainly of a two-mile, two-lane artery running between the Interstate and the intersection of Pine Street and Lakeside Avenue.
Ironically, the road’s existing, unused segment between 189 and Home Avenue would be torn up and reconfigured. At the northern end of the project, traffic signals would replace stop signs where Maple and King streets cross Pine. Sidewalks would be built on both sides of Pine, with a two-way bike path running along its western edge.
But will it happen? Planners must still get an Act 250 permit, with all the accompanying impact studies. If all goes smoothly — and the project’s troubled history strongly suggests it will not — construction could begin sometime in 2012. The Champlain Parkway might be up and running by 2015 — just in time for the project’s 50th anniversary.
“Every time we thought we had the problems solved, something would change and we would have to go in a different direction,” recounts Steve Goodkind, head of Burlington’s Department of Public Works. Goodkind began working on the project nearly 30 years ago as a young city engineer. Several colleagues from the Southern Connector era have started collecting their pensions.
Carol Weston, now the project’s local overseer, acknowledges that the decades-long delay has been “unfortunate.” But, she adds, “It’s definitely a product of a process that’s in place for a reason.”
It all started in the late 1970s, when toxic waste was discovered in the Pine Street Barge Canal. The Southern Connector was supposed to run through that 60-acre area. But a federal requirement to clean up the oil contamination became an insurmountable obstacle to the original plan.
Also, local opposition to the connector had also been swelling. Many argued that a four-lane highway whizzing past single-family homes on quiet streets would be an outrageous intrusion.
The combination of Barge Canal blockage and political uproar forced a long rethink that led to the more modest design that is soon to undergo state review. But the Champlain Parkway may turn out to be no less controversial than the Southern Connector.
Homeowners on Flynn and Home avenues — the routes now taken by many trucks traveling between Shelburne Road and Pine Street — generally welcome the revised plan, Weston says. Indeed, reducing commercial traffic on those two avenues serves as the sole rationale for the Champlain Parkway.
Contrary to popular impression, the project has “never been about creating a quicker route to and from downtown,” Weston says. Its role, Goodkind adds, is to alleviate pressures created by the absence of a direct north-south link to the city’s industrial district.
Traffic will actually increase on Pine Street — perhaps by as much as 20 percent — if the Champlain Parkway ever does get completed. That does not bode well for its busy intersections at King and Maple — even with traffic lights.
Pine Street businesses see pros and cons in the plan, says Roy Feldman, executive director of the South End Arts and Business Association. On one hand, increased traffic could bring more potential customers; on the other, more vehicular volume could disrupt parking patterns and worsen congestion. In general, the Champlain Parkway “raises a host of question marks” for local businesses, Feldman says.
Answers might one day emerge in the form of a new set of east-west streets running between Pine Street and the rail yard that abuts the Burlington bike path and a city sewage-treatment plant. Along with a possible extension of South Champlain Street, these imagined links to Battery Street could ease the choke point at Pine and Maple, Goodkind suggests. But not before Champlain Parkway is completed, he adds.
“It’s not going to accomplish much,” says Batchelder Street homeowner Enver Sehovic. Standing in his driveway, he predicts, “The road won’t make it easier to go downtown.”
Lance Smith of Lyman Avenue says he has a “mixed opinion” of the road that would cut through 20 yards to the west. “If it really is a green parkway with a nice sidewalk and plantings, it could be a good addition to a family neighborhood. But,” Smith adds, “it’s really quiet here now, and I’ve got to wonder what will happen with a road so close to us.”
Marie Boisvert, 70, lives in one of the two remaining homes on partially paved Briggs Street, which runs directly alongside a planned stretch of the parkway. She remembers that “a very nice house” stood opposite hers until it was leveled 25 years ago to clear the way for a road that has yet to arrive.
A satellite view of the unfinished stretch of the Southern Connector.