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Highway Circumcision 

Inside Track

Published May 12, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

It was the political foreskin of Republican Jim Douglas' successful campaign for governor in 2002 -- the crown jewel of the Douglas plan for economic development and job growth. But on Monday, U.S. District Court Judge William K. Sessions III snipped it right off, as only a federal judge can.

By order of the court, construction of Segments A and B of the 15.8-mile Chittenden County Circumferential Highway has been abruptly halted. The route would have provided IBM's giant facilities in Essex and Williston with easy access to I-89.

Segments C-F, the 4.5-mile bypass around Essex Junction's Five Corners bottleneck, was opened in 1993.

Segments G-H, if built, would cut through Colchester, connecting to the Burlington Beltline. The government claims construction of the entire 16-mile ring road would cut cross-county travel time by seven seconds. Based on the recently revised projected cost of $223 million, that's about $32 million per second!

In a carefully worded 75-page decision, Judge Billy found the government had broken federal laws requiring environmental review.

Within an hour, Vermont Transportation Secretary Patricia McDonald reluctantly issued a stop-work order. Just last week, McDonald had been so confident of victory, she joked that she had prepared only one speech to deliver following the expected court decision.

As it turned out, we'll never get to hear Patty's speech.

Sessions' ruling comes as very bad news for the Douglas administration. In recent weeks the Gov has consistently expressed unabashed confidence that the court would rule in the state's favor. Losing was not in the cards.

All day Monday, as anticipation of the decision's release was building, yours truly was getting calls from interested observers. People stopped us on the street and at the supermarket to ask if the decision was out yet.

Finally, at 5:13 p.m., there it was, posted on the court's website. Read it for yourself: www.vtd.uscourts.gov/Cases/03cv279.html.

This one, folks, had a lot of people watching from near and far. That's because this was the first court test in the nation of about a dozen highway projects put on the "fast track" by President George W. Bush's 2002 executive order.

Apparently the track was a bit too fast, eh?

The flaw that caused the Circ Circumcision was the government's determined reliance on a 17-year-old Federal Environmental Impact Statement, and a flawed one at that.

Sessions found the 1986 FEIS deficient because it did not take into account the Circ's contribution to sprawl in Chittenden County.

"In the 1980s, Chittenden County was undergoing rapid and clearly foreseeable development, yet the 1986 FEIS failed to analyze the cumulative and secondary effects of a massive (for Vermont) highway project," wrote Sessions.

The law that the government, i.e., the Bush and Douglas administrations, violated is the nation's bedrock environmental law, passed in 1969. It was a time when Americans suddenly started to wake up to the trashing of America. The National Environmental Policy Act requires proponents of projects like the Circ to thoroughly study the cumulative environmental impacts and take a "hard look" at alternatives.

In the case of the Circ, found Sessions, that simply was not done. "To require compliance with the strictures of NEPA," wrote Judge Sessions, "is not pettifoggery."

Not pettifoggery, indeed.

Instead, Gov. Douglas, with the help of his pal George W. Bush, simply tried to ram the road down Vermont's throat, environmental laws be damned!

Thanks to the plaintiffs -- VPIRG, the Sierra Club, the Conservation Law Foundation, Friends of the Earth, Wayne Senville and Donald Horenstein -- their plan failed. The rule of law won the day!

Two years ago, Candidate Jim Douglas was running hard on a pro-economic development platform. He promised new jobs and a bright future. And he promised to build the Circ!

It was music to the ears of IBM, the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation and the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce among other interests.

Then, just days before the election, Douglas got word from the White House that the Circ had made the final Bush fast-track list. He quickly staged a press conference by the roadside in Williston to tout his achievement and show voters he was the candidate who could get results. A couple days later, Jim Douglas was elected governor of Vermont by 5871 votes over Doug Racine.

Now, Gov. Douglas heads into his first reelection campaign with his big 2002 campaign promise shot down in flames. In addition, since May 1, the state has been paying $30,000 a day to the contractor to not build the road. Now is a perfect time to begin to examine Jimmy Scissorhands' "my way is the highway" approach.

What if Douglas had been open to compromise?

Last summer, before the lawsuit was even filed, the environmentalists offered the governor a deal. The tree huggers said they'd halt their opposition to construction of Circ Segments A-B, if Gov. Scissorhands would agree to take a "hard look" at alternatives to constructing Segments G-H through Colchester.

Construction of A-B would mean IBM would have its driveway connecting the plant to the interstate. The lack of those segments, noted Assistant U.S. Attorney Carol Shea in court last week, has held up IBM expansion plans.

But Vermont's first-term Republican governor was not about to stop to cut a deal with the enemy. No way, said Douglas, who even questioned the ethics of the environmental lawyers for proposing the compromise in the first place.

Knowing what we know now, it's clear that last summer's offer of compromise was one Gov. Douglas should not have scorned. Instead, Jimmy Scissor-hands held out for the whole enchilada -- all or nothing!

This week, Gov. Douglas has a handful of nothing to show for it.

Good judgment, eh?

Prog Spoiler? -- Burlington Rep. Steve Hingtgen's candidacy for Lite-Gov arrives this week like salt in the wounds caused by the 2002 rift between the Progressive Party and the Democrat Party.

The little-known Hingtgen made his official announcement at the Statehouse before a "crowd" of 10 Progs, including Anthony Pollina.

Democrats see it as deja vu all over again, a replay of the 2002 race when Anthony Pollina's third-place finish behind Democrat Peter Shumlin opened the door for Republican Brian Dubie to win with just 41 percent of the vote.

This time, two liberal Ds, Cheryl Rivers and Jan Backus, have declared for Lite-Gov. Each was extraordinarily polite when interviewed by VPR following L'il Stevie Wonderful's Monday announcement. Each thinks she can win despite Proggy Steve pulling leftist votes.

Hingtgen declared he'll run his campaign on one, and only one, issue: affordable health care. At the moment, he appears to be the only Prog who'll seek statewide office this year. The Progressive Party's "major party" status appears to be major in name only.

GOP Chairman Jim Barnett did his best Monday to conceal his delight in Hingtgen's candidacy. Barnett insisted Dubie will win reelection no matter what.

It took five tries to get Mad Dog to answer the question: Doesn't the entry of the Prog candidate help Dubie, just like it did in 2002?

"Hingtgen is certainly a far left-wing candidate. There are some," conceded Barnett, "who would say that being that he is on the extreme left, the only place those votes might come from is the Democratic Party."

Thank you, James.

P.S. Though a three-term legislator from Burlap, Hingtgen was not certain Monday if he would be listed on the November ballot as Steve Hingtgen of Burlington or Steve Hingtgen of Montpelier.

That's because the Statehouse has given Steve more than political experience. He also found a sweetheart under the golden dome.

Steve's beau, Michele Childs, is an attorney with the Legislative Council. She is a Montpelier resident. Michele staffs the House Judiciary Committee on which Hingtgen served in 2000 when the civil-unions law was written. Love was definitely in the air that year.

Wedding bells?

"Not yet," replied Steve.

Stay tuned.

Howard Sightings -- On Monday we're driving the crumbling interstate to Montpeculiar and listening to Mark Johnson's talk show on WDEV when, suddenly, the next caller turns out to be Howard Dean. Apparently Ho-Ho has a lot of free time on his hands these days.

The topic was state transportation spending, and Ho-Ho sounded liked his old gubernatorial self, the fiscal conservative with the Wall Street bloodline. Mr. Take Charge.

Changing the subject, Johnson asked the former presidential antiwar candidate what he thought was the "significance" of the recent revelations about mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners.

Ho-Ho sounded surprised by the question.

"Ah... well, I mean, I think that... ah... it's clearly a disaster for the country," stumbled Dean. "You know, this is what happens when you privatize too much stuff. Some of these folks were being supervised by private contractors. You can't do that," said Dean.

"If you're going to defend the United States of America," continued Ho-Ho, "that ought to be done under the supervision of the federal government, not under a private contractor. I think that's one of the problems we have."

Great, thanks for the management analysis, but what about the sadism and torture?

"I'm with the president on this one," said Dean. "I do not believe that this represents the behavior of the vast majority of the American military. This was a relatively small number of folks who were under bad leadership."

So much for the antiwar candidate, eh? We always suspected it was a position of political convenience.

Just as well. Had the primaries turned out differently and Dean stood where John Kerry stands today, imagine the TV attack ads Karl Rove would be spitting out.

As it is, the Bush campaign has pumped $75 million into groin-kicking, negative TV spots trashing Sen. Kerry's record and portraying him as anti-military. Imagine smearing a guy with a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts won in Vietnam? Imagine if Ho-Ho had been Bush-maker Karl Rove's target, eh?

Picture a scene of a young Howard Dean going to his draft physical, patriotically toting X-rays to bolster his claim of a back condition.

The next shot would show a Dean look-alike skiing down Aspen Mountain with his new draft deferment. Then a cut-away shot of wounded and dead U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.

Then a voice notes that "Howard Dean says he believes in open government, but sealed thousands of documents from his gubernatorial reign to keep them out of public view."

Oh, well. It wasn't meant to be.

Sorry, Karl.

Editorial Silence -- A Statehouse lobbyist pointed it out to us Monday -- the absence of an editorial in Vermont's largest daily newspaper addressing the recent revelations about the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by their American guards. Sadomasochism and torture appear to be the sport of choice for some wearing the uniform of the United States.

Sure enough, recent editorials in The Burlington Free Press have addressed a host of issues, from the need for child restraints in cars to applauding the former UVM hockey players lining up in the current Tampa Bay-Philiadelphia NHL semifinal series. But not a peep on the dark cloud of war that hangs over our nation, and not a word about the president who put it there. And no call for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the architect of the Iraq disaster.

What's odd is that the market the local Gannett paper serves has no shortage of interested readers. This is, after all, Vermont. Our entire congressional delegation voted against this mad war and they've been outspoken critics since.

Sen. Patrick Leahy appeared Sunday morning on ABC's "This Week."

"Was it torture?" asked George Stephanopolous, about the trophy photos of naked and bound Iraqis being humiliated by their all-American keepers.

"Oh, yes," replied Leahy. "The question is, who allowed it?"

"I want to know," said St. Patrick, his anger rising, "who the colonels were, who the generals were, who the people at the Pentagon were who knew about it and didn't do one damn thing to stop it!"

Then Leahy's seat mate, conservative columnist George Will, chimed in. "I agree with Sen. Leahy," said Will. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

The blood of Vermont soldiers has been spilled in the sands of Iraq and more losses are inevitable given our current rudderless leadership. The Washington Post reported Sunday that, more and more, senior military officials are publicly questioning the Bush-Rumsfeld policy, likening it to a replay of America's debacle in Vietnam.

A few days ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page of the Rutland Herald jumped into the fray:

"Rumsfeld's resignation or firing would send the message that Bush understood how far the United States had strayed into the realm of international anarchy and that he had learned that it was important to honor international laws and obligations. But it is questionable that Bush has learned that lesson."

Meanwhile, the editorial page of the Gannett-chain newspaper that is Vermont's largest daily is silent on the number-one story of the day, much as it was silent in 2000 during the battle over equal rights for same-sex couples.

Cat got your tongue, eh?

P.S. By the way, online readers of the Freeps have been noticing delays in posting the daily edition. Executive Editor Mike Townsend (a Baltimore native who came to the Freeps from Gannett's Des Moines Register), told Seven Days they'd had "a problem with the firewall."

"It's been fixed," he said Tuesday.


Corrections -- Poor choice of words last week about Kwik Stop Kurt being "let go." Some interpreted that to mean "fired."

Not at all.

It was Rep. Kurt Wright's own decision to leave Kerry's Kwik Stop. He departed on good terms. Kurt's the one who let go.

And our line from the bard was incorrectly attributed to Henry IV. Goodness gracious. It was Henry V.

Damn English kings.

Online reader Rachel in the Big Apple caught it first.

Mea culpa.

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About The Author

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne, 1949-2009, wrote the weekly political column "Inside Track," which originated in the Vanguard Press in the mid 1980s; he brought it to Seven Days in 1995. He retired it shortly before his death in January, 2009. We all miss him.


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