Testimony given on plan to reduce transportation districts

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(Host) Tuesday night the Senate and House Transportation Committees held a public hearing on a proposal to cut the number of highway districts in Vermont. The Agency of Transportation says the reduction would save money without hurting highway maintenance. Some disagreed.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) Transportation Secretary Dawn Terrill told the committee that reducing the number of highway maintenance districts in Vermont from nine to six would save the state almost $790,000. Without the cuts, Terrill says highway projects could be jeopardized. She says the savings would come from cutting 11 managerial jobs.

(Terrill) “It is critical from our standpoint that we not impact the service out to the communities – that we not change the number of maintenance workers, people who are out driving plow truck and doing summer work and our summer patching work.”

(Zind) About two dozen people offered testimony. Many were Agency of Transportation employees who work on the highways. Their bright orange jackets dotted the room. Some expressed concern that proposed job cuts were only the beginning and more would follow. Several said that money could be saved by more efficient use of equipment.

Milan Lawson spent his career with the agency, including a number of years as a highway district administrator – one of the jobs that would be cut under the proposal. Lawson said the costs of consolidating districts would offset any savings.

(Lawson) “I can’t see cutting people for the cost of paving one mile of road. I’ve been with the state of Vermont for 51 years, but I’ve never seen anything like this.” (Sound of applause.)

(Zind) Gilbert Newbury says he’s leaving his job as a District Transportation Administrator. Newbury says if the proposal goes through, his job would likely be one of the positions cut. But he still thinks the consolidation makes sense.

(Gilbert) “Even though my neck is on the block, or was, this proposal has merit. I think this proposal makes sense. I think this proposal can work and I think we owe it to the taxpayers to give this due consideration.”

(Zind) Other states, including New Hampshire and Maine, have districts double the size of Vermont’s. Newbury says services wouldn’t be affected by the consolidation. But a number of town administrators disagreed, arguing that in small communities the state highway is their main street and larger districts will mean less individualized attention. Glen Smith is Westminster town manager.

(Smith) “Consolidation of District 1 and District 2 into a single district of 40-plus towns will result in a situation in which that staff cannot be familiar with our roads, our bridges, our highways and our problems. As such, that will decrease the level of service they can provide to the small towns.”

(Zind) The House Transportation Committee will take up the consolidation plan on Wednesday. The committee may decide to take more time before making a decision.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Montpelier.

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