Margi Swett laughs often and with ease, answering questions with a Midwestern neatness—a “grin and bear it,” kind of attitude.
Her business, Vermont Awards and Engraving, Inc, is nestled across the way from Costco in Colchester, off of I-89 Exit 16. She can see Costco’s empty gas pumps from her front door. A sign outside the station reads, “Coming as soon as the appeals stop.”
“It’s a real pain in the butt,” said Swett, of the nearly ten-year-long delayed construction project planned for Exit 16. The project would also provide the traffic improvements required in Costco’s permits for its gas station.
“It’s gonna be a horrible hassle but it’s already a horrible hassle,” Swett said laughing.
Design plans proposed by the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) in the initial plan illustrate a “Diverging Diamond” traffic pattern for the intersection—the first of its kind in Vermont. According to the VTrans project website, in a DDI, “traffic crosses to the left side of the roadway allowing for ease of access to the interstate by eliminating difficult left turns. With traffic diverted to the left side of the roadway, vehicles making a left onto the interstate entrance ramps do not have to cross oncoming traffic, creating fewer conflict points.”
But Skip Vallee, gasoline king and part owner of R.L. Vallee, Inc., one of Vermont’s largest fuel dealers, appealed Costco’s permit and lost. Now he’s heading an appeal of the Act 250 and stormwater permits for the Exit 16 improvements, with one portion of the case reaching the Vermont Supreme Court in April.
The court has not yet issued a ruling.
VTrans Project Manager, Michael LaCroix, is not worried. While he admits the legal back and forth “has been time consuming to a degree,” he is focused on sticking to the project timeline and says, with confidence, that construction is planned for Spring of 2020. According to LaCroix, the majority of construction will take place at night to mitigate traffic congestion and provide the least amount of interference with local businesses in the area.
Swett thinks that the need for safer traffic patterns is the most important concern, in spite of how construction might affect her business.
How does she think businesses can plan to prepare for this kind of construction? “Try to calm down,” Swett said laughing. But in all seriousness, Swett expects to conduct more sales online and by phone, absorbing some of those shipping costs. “About 25 percent [of our] traffic is through our showroom,” she said, “and most often people come in once and then repeat business via phone or internet. We’ll do what we have to do.”
Clifford Thorpe, owner of Checkerbay Carwash on the Winooski side of Exit 16, is more concerned. “If you’re a business on a street under construction, you’re worried,” he said. “How loyal are our customers? What can we offer to keep people coming in? How much does a community value your business to support you through it? What’s the plan?”
Thorpe opened Checkerbay in 2008 amid the Great Recession. Since opening, he has been to three funerals and had only one vacation. Thorpe’s best resource as to whether or not his business will survive has been fellow carwash owners. “Everyone agrees that there will be a loss of business, but the amounts range from 5 to 35 percent,” he said. But most of these projections are based on “personal experience and hear-say.” Otherwise, he claims that there is no information on how construction will affect local businesses.
LaCroix said that a “direct line of communication between businesses and construction staff” is paramount to keeping both happy. “It is hard not to impact people with such a busy roadway. We try to accommodate as many parties as we can,” he said.
As far as information goes, LaCroix refers back to the project website which has a timeline, design plans, driving simulation animations, and proposals dating all the way back to 2009. He also says that VTrans will host Public Outreach Tours this summer, which will allow people to use a driving simulator, to get a better sense of the DDI.
“The plan is to break ground in a year,” said LaCroix, pending this current decision.