Consolidation of transportation districts meets critical response

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(Host) Lawmakers are questioning the Douglas administration’s plan to restructure the Agency of Transportation. The administration hopes to save $2.5 million by consolidating districts and cutting about 40 jobs. But some legislators are worried that highway maintenance may suffer if the plan goes through.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The Douglas administration is looking at a widening gap between the cost of road projects and the money available to fund them. The administration wants to boost spending on paving, Interstate maintenance and bridge work. But there’s little new federal money available. The state Transportation Fund is down as well.

Dawn Terrill is the new Transportation Secretary. She’s working on an extensive restructuring of the agency.

(Terrill) “We have a substantial pressure on our budget this year. We have a $16 million budget difference from ’06 to ’05. There are a number of ways that we’re addressing that gap. The $2.5 million in staff reductions is just one component of that.”

(Dillon) Terrill hopes to save the $2.5 million by cutting about 40 positions and shrinking the number of transportation districts from nine to six. The first step – consolidating the districts – would save about $750,000, and would eliminate about a dozen jobs.

On Tuesday, Terrill met with several lawmakers from southern Vermont, where the Windham and Bennington districts would be combined. She tried to reassure them that the roads would still be plowed on time if the cuts go through.

(Terrill) “We’re designing a proposal that, from our perspective, has no negative impact on the communities with regards to summer maintenance and winter maintenance, as well as working with the towns on various projects that happen throughout the summer.”

(Dillon) The Douglas administration wanted quick approval for the changes as part of the 2005 budget adjustment act. But lawmakers raised questions and put the proposal on a slow track.

Steve Howard is a Rutland City Democrat and vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

(Howard) “I think what we heard at the meeting today, coming right off of a snowstorm – a pretty significant snowstorm, is that there is concerns already with the level of service from the existing configuration. And I think if you reduce the number of people – it’s easy to do on paper, it’s harder to do in reality. And my concern is that underestimating the value of those extra people, even if it’s just the 12 people in the districts, can have a devastating effect on the care of our roadways.”

(Dillon) On Wednesday, two House committees will hold a hearing on the administration’s plan. A public hearing is also scheduled for February 1.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

(Host) Meanwhile, the agency’s consolidation plan is getting a frosty reception in Brattleboro. The proposal to merge transportation districts in Bennington and Windham Counties would eliminate one district administrator and three other jobs. The remaining district administrator would work out of Bennington, with a satellite office in Windham County.

Brattleboro Town Manager Jerry Remillard says that could have a serious effect on response plans in the event of a mishap at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

(Remillard) “In the case of the Vermont Yankee emergency plan, the district administrator and staff up at District 2 in Dummerston are a vital part of that plan. And to consider moving those people out of the area, 40 miles away, is just not something that would be a positive result for the people of this area.”

(Host) Remillard says the proposal also doesn’t make sense because the two southern Vermont counties are separated by a mountain range.

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