By MIKE DONOGHUE
for the Colchester Sun
The owners of two major gas station chains and convenience stores have filed a federal lawsuit to try to block the construction of the so-called “diverging diamond” traffic project on U.S. 2 & 7 by Interstate 89 near the Colchester-Winooski line.
Rodolphe “Skip” Vallee, on behalf of R. L. Vallee, and David Simendinger, on behalf of Wesco and Timberlake Associates, believe the project violates the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the Administrative Procedure Act, the lawsuit maintains.
The Vermont Agency of Transportation and its secretary, Joe Flynn; and the Federal Highway Administration and its secretary, Elaine Chao, are among the defendants named in the 38-page lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Burlington.
Federal, state and town officials have said the $8 million road project is properly designed and will improve traffic flow and safety for about a one-mile stretch of U.S. 2 & 7, also known as Roosevelt Highway.
It is a major north-south corridor, including for those traveling to or from the Champlain Islands or Canada. About 24,000 vehicles use the road each day, landing it in the top five sites for daily traffic in Chittenden County, according to Michael LaCroix, project manager for VTrans. The location also has the eighth-most crashes and the third-most with serious injuries.
The federal lawsuit is a second attack by Vallee, who is leading the charge to try to block Costco over its plans to offer low-cost gasoline at its nearby wholesale store.
Costco has added 12 gasoline pumps but cannot turn them on until certain road improvements are made nearby. The project also is before the Vermont Supreme Court following an appeal by Vallee and Simendinger.
The Costco project received the green light from Act 250, the state’s land development law, and was upheld by a Vermont Environmental Court after a five-day trial. The 78-page decision by Judge Thomas Walsh on June 1 is now before the state’s highest court.
Flynn said he expects state and federal officials will contest the federal lawsuit on the long-planned project. Formal written responses are due at the court in several weeks.
“VTrans and the Vermont Attorney General’s Office will be reviewing this new federal court lawsuit with the Federal Highway Administration and it’s legal counsel,” Flynn said in a prepared statement. “Meanwhile, VTrans and other state agencies are continuing to work with the Vermont Attorney General’s Office to defend an appeal that the same project opponents recently filed with the Vermont Supreme Court.”
The project would run between the Winooski city line and the intersection of Sunderland Woods Road in Colchester. It includes a redesign and reconstruction of the Exit 16 interchange area. Both Upper and Lower Mountain View drives would be expanded with turn lanes.
Vallee, who is based in St. Albans, operates various convenience stores, including the Maplefields chain. One of the stores, which sells Mobil gasoline, is at 414 Roosevelt Hwy., north of Exit 16 on I-89. The store operates 24 hours a day.
Wesco and Timberlake Associates are related companies based in South Burlington. Wesco operates a Champlain Farms convenience store with Shell gasoline at 156 Roosevelt Hwy. next to Burger King near the Winooski line. The store, which also is open 24 hours a day, is about a quarter-mile south of Vallee’s store.
Timberlake owns the land on which Wesco operates its store. The state still has to acquire the right-of-way to proceed, but construction to replace and relocate utilities is expected to begin in spring 2020. Actual roadwork would start in spring 2021, LaCroix said.
In conjunction with the utility work, Champlain Water District will replace a major waterline that is more than 40 years old that serves much of northern Chittenden County. Doing the work at the same time makes sense, LaCroix said.
The plaintiffs are concerned that construction and blasting may require some traffic disruptions or road closures. They said there is a projected 30 percent decrease in some traffic.
Vallee and Simendinger want the federal court to step in and block the defendants until they comply with NEPA. They also ask the FHA be enjoined from disbursing any funds for the project until these requirements are addressed.
The lawsuit maintains the defendants rushed the project through the regulatory process and did not perform an Environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement. Flynn and LaCroix said state and federal officials believe they have acted properly.
“We are just moving forward,” LaCroix said.
The project also impacts more than 18,000 square feet of wetlands, according to Vallee and Simendinger.
Three final were considered: widening U.S. 2 & 7, the diverging diamond or a roundabout. The diverging diamond provided the best option to reduce gridlock, move traffic and improve safety.
Vallee said in the lawsuit that VTrans discharges pollutants and stormwater containing phosphorus and chloride on his land, and he theorizes more might be deposited when the project is done, the lawsuit said.
Vallee discharges its stormwater, including entrained chloride, into Sunnyside Brook, his lawsuit said. LaCroix said those same arguments were raised and resolved during Act 250 hearings and at the Environmental Court.