For around 20 years, the Agency of Transportation has planed to do a major reconstruction of a near five and a half mile stretch of Route 78, from just outside of the Alburg-Swanton Bridge to the Swanton Town line.
Now, according to Senior Project Manager Ken Upmal, the end is in sight.
"We can see the end of the tunnel," Upmal said.
Where the project is now is the result of an immense amount of work by the Agency of Transportation, going through the designing process but also an extensive bureaucratic process, he said.
The road as it sits now is not safe, Upmal said. Pedestrians, cyclists and even cars that break down have little space on the road.
"The road is dangerous, " Upmal said. "The road doesn't have any shoulders. It's extremely hazardous."
But in addition, the road is reaching its life cycle.
"What we're gonna do is we're going to build a brand new highway," Upmal said.
State Representative for Franklin County, Brian Savage, a life-long Swanton resident, said the rebuild is long overdue.
The community all of the sudden came face to face with the state of highway earlier this month, when a sinkhole sent residents on a 50-mile detour for the end of the week.
Normally the detour would have been able to go through Canada, making the trip significantly shorter. But because Canada’s borders are currently closed to U.S. travelers, residents were sent on a much longer trip, Savage said.
“It was unfortunate that it had to occur,” Savage said. “But I think it goes to show how desperately major improvements are needed for that highway.”
Luckily, because a decade ago the Agency decided to build and stockpile precast concrete box sections in district offices, they were able to move quickly and fix the issue in a matter of days, Upmal said.
By 2025, the Agency expects to begin construction on Route 78, adding full-width 12-foot travel lanes and an eight-foot shoulder.
“When we’re building a highway, our goal is always to provide optimal safety and mobility to the travelling public,” Upmal said. “We're going to be constructing a highway that is going to give us the best, most cost effective, long lasting highway we can.”
The challenges of any highway project includes environmental permitting, utility relocation coordination and right-of-way acquisition, Upmal said.
Upmal has performed extensive public outreach to property owners as well as outreach and coordination with the National Wildlife Refuge to satisfy all their needs, he said.
The project also demanded work with archeologists after they found evidence of Abenaki inhabitants from thousands of years ago in the early 2010s.
The project has, as of around three months ago, moved on to negotiating the right-of-way arrangements for the 56 parcels of land along the 5 and a half mile stretch, arguably the longest part of planning any major highway project.
A right-of-way allows an individual to enter another’s property and use it as passage.
“We put in a strong effort to meet with everybody, listen to their concerns and input, solicit all their input and make any design modifications that we could that would satisfy them,” Upmal said.
For a project like this, Upmal said, the right-of-way process takes around two and a half years. The process involves writing up the plans, developing evaluations for the parcels and engaging in formal negotiations with each parcel.
Once the whole final plan is put together, the Agency will advertise the project and begin evaluating bids for actually completing the project. Nearly all of the funding for the highway comes from the federal government, Upmal said.
“The agency has done a fantastic job over the last 20 years and we are going to continue to do that,” he said.