NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- The northern leg of Vermont Route 279 opened with fanfare to the public on Thursday after five years of construction and $72 million of state and federal money pumped into the project.
Local, state and federal officials gathered on a grassy spot along the 3-mile stretch of road Thursday, with Mount Anthony and the Bennington Battle Monument as a backdrop, to celebrate the completion of the segment. The northern leg connects Route 9 on the eastern edge of Bennington with the Route 279 systems interchange, allowing trucks and other traffic to head north toward Manchester or west to New York, without traveling through the downtown.
The three-section roadway system intended to keep trucks out of the downtown has been in the works for decades, a fact noted by many speakers at Thursday's ceremony. The western leg from New York was opened to the public in 2004. The southern leg remains unfunded, and its prospects for construction unclear.
Still, officials found plenty to celebrate on Thursday.
"We're pleased to be opening the northern leg of Vermont 279. This is a vision that goes back a long way," said Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Brian Searles. "I know we've all be at this for quite a while. It's the result of hard work of many."
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin also poked fun at the length of time it has taken to complete the project.
"I think I was just a glint in my parents' eye on the other side of the ridge growing up in Windham County when this project was first starting to be talked about. And here we stand 50 years later," Shumlin said. "So, whoever said we don't get things done quickly in the state of Vermont?"
Shumlin also noted the efforts of former local lawmakers to push the project despite several setbacks along the way.
"If there was a person who fought this battle more effective and at a more critical time, the prizes would have to go to [former Vermont House Speaker] Ralph Wright, [former Bennington Rep.] Tim Corcoran and [former Bennington Rep.] Dick Pembroke," Shumlin said. "And there are probably a number of stories over the years, and the number of times that others killed this project and they brought it back to life. This project had more lives than any cat ever born on this earth."
"What we celebrate today is an effort that's gone on for many years that has been taken back from Bennington as many times as its been given, the dogged determination by legislators, by local select boards and by local citizens, who simply said this, ‘Listen, it is all too easy in Montpelier to ignore the forgotten kingdom of the County of Bennington as Dick Sears has coined it, but you will give us what we deserve; jobs, economic opportunities, a transportation system that makes sense, a downtown that can thrive and be vibrant, a welcome center that will open next summer that makes sense for Bennington, and a commitment to this part of the state that is economically challenged and transportation infrastructure challenged,'" Shumlin added.
Greg Nadeau, the deputy federal highway administrator, was also present Thursday. He congratulated local residents on completion of the highway and said the road is "an example of what President Obama means when he talks about building an America that will last."
The construction project has employed local residents, and will improve quality of life in Bennington's downtown, according to Nadeau.
"Construction of Vermont Route 279 put people to work in good-paying jobs. That was a tremendous boost to the local economy as paychecks rippled through the local community. The long-term benefits of this project are just as exciting," he said. "Commercial truck traffic is a sign of commercial activity. It's a great barometer for it. But, those trucks aren't always compatible with a pleasant and livable downtown. Vermont Route 279 will give trucks a route outside the city, which will enhance the overall safety on roads and make downtown Bennington more inviting for shoppers, tourists, local stores and local pedestrians."
Pembroke, a former chairman of the House Transportation Committee, spoke about the effort required to ensure the project would not become entangled in political quagmires in Montpelier.
"When I would see that the project wasn't progressing, I'd go to the meetings and there'd be a hold-up here and a hold-up there, and there'd be a utility problem or a right-of-way problem, or something that all they needed was an arbitrator, I would go out and stir the pot a little bit to keep the thing going," Pembroke said. "We kept it moving and a lot of people helped us, and I just can't thank them enough for what we've got here to day. I just hope that I live long enough to see the southern connector."
The town of Bennington is happy to present the spectacular views of Bennington to out-of-state motorists," said Bennington Select Board Chairman Joseph L. Krawczyk Jr.
"This is the image, I think, all Vermonters want to project to visitors who come to visit our great state," he said.
Krawczyk, too, noted the pass of time since talk of the road system began. "I left Bennington in ‘67 and joined the military and people were talking about it. When I came home in ‘94 I thought I'd be driving on it," Krawczyk said. "Two down and one to go."
Shumlin, who has yet to commit funding for the southern leg in his budget recommendations to the Legislature, said the state would continue seeking the third and final leg.
"We're not done. This is the second leg. We've got another leg to go, but it's a lot easier to fight for one leg than three legs," Shumlin said.
Bennington Police Lt. Lloyd Dean said a driver from New York received the first speeding ticket issued on the road within an hour of its opening. The driver was traveling 72 mph on the 55 mph road, according to Dean.