Highgate ponders Route 78’s future

Takeover would allow crosswalk, safety improvements

By Elaine Ezerins

Staff Writer

Just
The Facts

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HIGHGATE — A Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) representative explained the process of turning a state highway into a Class 1 Town Highway (C1TH) to the town selectboard Thursday. The board is looking into reclassifying a section of VT Route 78, which runs through the town’s center.

“It boils down to control,” Jim Cota, the District 8 Project Manager of VTrans Maintenance and Operations, said. “If the town wants more control of what they do, the town can choose to go to legislature and turn a piece of road into a Class 1 Town Highway.”

If a town chooses to go this route, the community would select a section of a state highway to take ownership of. C1THs are still marked with a state route number, but are maintained by the town. Towns typically decide to convert a section of the state highway in the downtowns or village centers, where land use and economic activity is most intense.

“It’s a hot topic,” Cota said. “Everybody’s thinking about this.”

Many municipalities around the state are considering the option of reclassifying sections of the state highways that run through their village centers because of the benefits for both the communities and VTrans, according to a report prepared by DuBois & King, Inc.

It can provide more flexibility for the town in terms of streetscape design, placement of crosswalks and on-street parking. The town also receives annual compensation via Town Highway Aid and remains eligible for most state and federal grant programming. VTrans is relieved of the responsibility of maintaining that section of the road.

According to the report, outreach to current C1TH communities, including St. Albans City, Enosburgh and Richford, was conducted to assess their satisfaction with the current policy of C1TH.

With responses from 50 percent of the communities, 80 percent of the responders said they were satisfied and would not turn the section of the road back to the state. However, 20 percent of the responders said they would prefer to return the road to VTrans primarily because of inadequate funding. According to the report, the towns in the latter group tended to fall in economically stressed areas.

When a state highway becomes a C1TH, the town takes over the majority of maintenance responsibilities and costs, except for major resurfacing every 10 to 15 years and the striping in the centerline.

Therefore, C1THs are “shared responsibilities,” Cota said.

To pay for the maintenance costs, the town would receive funding from the Town Highway Aid. The funding rate for each mile of C1TH is $11,213. The total amount of funding for C1THs is around $1.55 million. According to the report, the base amount of funding for C1TH can vary year by year based on the monies allocated by the legislature and the amount of total miles of C1TH in the state.

The reimbursement funding from the state for roadway maintenance isn’t necessarily enough to cover all of the expenses.

For overall roadway maintenance, VTrans averages the cost per mile at $16,600.

The average annual maintenance costs for a mile of C1TH in a community with no traffic signals, streetlights or MS4 (stormwater permit) requirements drops down to $10,900, falling below the current reimbursement rate.

However, if the community does have all those amenities, the maintenance costs would be substantially higher, coming in at $17,450, which exceeds the town highway aid rate by $6,250 or 56 percent annually.

Assistant Director of Northwest Regional Planning Commission (NRPC) Bethany Remmers said, “VTrans is working on developing a spreadsheet of sorts where towns can type in their maintenance costs and labor costs. It will spit out whether it would be a cost benefit for you to have, to take over a state highway. In addition to having more flexibility, which is a benefit in itself.”

According to Remmers, VTrans is also working with the legislature to increase the reimbursement rate per mile as well as the overall Town Highway Aid fund.

Taking on a section of the state highway would also mean taking on water quality requirements, including measuring runoff and others, according to Cota.

“What’s coming your way is TS4 and that’s going to affect everything that sheds water into Lake Champlain,” Cota said. “It’s going to affect all 34 towns in District 8.”

“It’s not rocket science,” Cota said. “It’s not hard. But I want to let you know, there may be more that you have to do,” including regular documentation.

However, having a C1TH would allow the town to have more flexibility, including being able to approve the construction of a cross walk in Highgate Center, along VT Route 78 and Lamkin Street, according to Town Administrator Heidi Britch-Valenta.

Britch-Valenta said people come in my office all the time, saying, ‘Highgate needs a cross walk! Why won’t the state give us a sidewalk?’

If a section of VT Route 78 were C1TH, the town would be able to build islands on both sides of the village to slow down the traffic.

“That’s a great idea because it tells people you’re entering a village,” Britch-Valenta said. “It gets people an opportunity to cross. It gives them an island so they don’t have to cross two lanes.”

“If Highgate doesn’t feel that these are good improvements, you don’t have to do them,” she said. “But there is a sidewalk committee that’s telling me that the library wants to be able to walk kids to the school. There’s an afternoon program telling me that they want to walk kids to the library and then down to the river.”

A crosswalk in the town center could allow those organizations to make the field trips, Britch-Valenta said. “It’s just a matter of strategically making choices that are going to later put you in the position to have some sort of infrastructure to help kids, elderly, adults of any age, across the street,” she said.

If the town of Highgate wishes to look into reclassifying a section of VT Route 78, the report recommends establishing one’s goals, making an inventory of the road and its condition, developing multiple reclassification scenarios, calculating the costs and revenues and then discussing with community members, the NRPC and VTrans before moving forward.