SWANTON — “Why does it take so long?” is a question Ken Upmal, senior project manager for the Agency of Transportation, gets all the time.
Upmal answered this and more Sept. 7 at the Swanton selectboard meeting, but the main message stands: the reconstruction of Route 78 is happening and is a reality for the not too distant future.
Upmal said the project is in its final stages and that it isn’t the designing that has taken so long, but environmental permitting, utility coordination and relocation and right of way acquisitions.
Route 78 is a vital road in northwest Vermont. Not only does it connect Franklin and Grand Isle Counties, but it passes through Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge and is frequented heavily by commercial trucks at all hours of the day.
For the past two and a half years, Upmal has been working with the National Wildlife Refuge, coordinating its needs and concerns.
When Upmal originally took over the project, he insisted that the rebuild of the highway endure. His plan, he said, is to build a highway that will last 50 years as opposed to a regular repaving which would last 15-20 years.
VTrans expects to add full-width 12-foot travel lanes and six to eight foot shoulders.
“This might not mean anything for anybody right now, but in the interest of the town, this is fantastic,” Upmal said at the meeting. “I'm going to build you a 50-year road. It's gonna last.”
Currently Upmal has 80% of the right of way plans drawn up and construction is expected to begin in 2024, Upmal said, which in VTrans terms, is like tomorrow.
Construction in 2024
When construction begins on the two-year project, Upmal said it will be impossible to avoid traffic delays.
While the road is being built, the highway will go down to one way alternating travel with a traffic light.
Upmal said this is a hard pill to swallow, but there is no way to put a two-way detour through the Refuge and the archaeologically sensitive areas around the highway.
He plans however to limit the length of the construction zone to mitigate traffic delays as much as possible.
Concerns about speeding
Upmal said concerns about dangerous drivers along the road is an issue of law enforcement and isn’t something VTrans has jurisdiction over.
Upmal said his only job is making the road better and that he can’t control how fast people drive on the road.
“The road is another fatality waiting to happen,” he said at the meeting. “We’re going to make it better.”
VTrans is optimistic
Despite the wait and years of planning, Upmal said he’s feeling good now that an end is in sight.
“I'm really optimistic. I'm tired. I’ve been working on this project for years and years,” he said. “It's a very tiring process, but I can stand up here tonight with a smile, knowing that we're here, and I'm very proud and all of it.”
Upmal said he’s retiring soon and this will be one of his last projects with VTrans, topping off a 28 year career with the agency.
“When I step off this train in the future, I’m very proud of what myself and my staff have accomplished with this,” he said. “This is a reality now folks, and I couldn't say that for years.”
Upmal encouraged anyone with questions about the project and their property to reach out to him via email at Ken.Upmal@vermont.gov.