Irene’s Hidden Blessing

by John McClughry

Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont hard. At a statehouse briefing on November 10 Deputy Transportation Secretary Sue Minter totaled up the damage.

Fourteen hundred residences – 433 of them mobile homes – damaged; 1,350 households displaced; 34 state highway bridges washed out; 90 town bridges gone or closed; 2,260 state road segments damaged; 531 state highway miles closed; 175 town roads closed; three thousand repair projects under way.

By the time the rain stopped, Vermonters set out to repair the damage. Gov. Shumlin named former Administration Secretary Neale Lunderville as Irene Recovery Officer. The VTrans team set up regional commands to get the roads open.

The Vermont Army National Guard and Guard detachments from nine states as far away as South Carolina and Illinois brought equipment and manpower. The Red Cross and many other organizations went to work to ameliorate the human side of the damage. A state cleanup day on October 22 brought out thousands of volunteers.

These combined efforts have been a historic success. How many other states could have performed so spectacularly in the face of a calamity of this magnitude? At the statehouse briefing the assembled legislators gave two standing ovations for the VTrans employees who got the roads open and the traffic moving..

Three weeks after the storm, Gov. Shumlin announced that the total damage to public infrastructure and state property would be over $1 billion. Now it turns out that, using reasonable assumptions about federal assistance, the cost to Vermont taxpayers will come to $267 million, or even (best case) $106 million. (Both of these figures include $50 million to replace the Vermont State Hospital facility, which has been in planning stages for a decade.)

As these sharply lowered numbers were being compiled, Gov. Shumlin said “when you bring in the National Guard, and you don’t have to hire flaggers, and you don’t have to keep roads open while you’re rebuilding, and you can take the gravel and the rock from the brooks and rivers that it got washed into, you drastically reduce the cost of rebuilding.”

Deputy Secretary of Transportation Sue Minter added “When we’re in an emergency, we don’t have to take on all of the normal construction processes. Those extend from permitting at the federal and state [levels] to community outreach, to surveying to negotiation and compensation for right of way – a whole host of processes that we were able to shortcut in this emergency response.”

She went on to say, as reported by True North Reports, “It usually takes an average of eight years to take a bridge project from beginning to completion. [On the Rt. 114] project we did several expedited processes, including closing the road, to take that to three months and instead of a $1.5 million average, to $300,000. We know we can cut costs.”

House Republican Leader Don Turner then raised an obvious question. “If we can bypass some of those steps in an emergency situation and save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, why can’t we do that all the time??”

To some, that is a very dangerous thought.

Vermont’s environmental activist groups have spent forty years deliberately making any project that would affect the environment, ecosystems, transportation, economic growth and esthetics the target of costly and exhausting regulatory processes.

So when Gov. Shumlin says, “You can be assured that in the interest of delivering the best possible roads and bridges and transportation infrastructure that we can to the hard-pressed taxpayers in Vermont, we have asked the Agency of Transportation… to assess how we can bring this kind of good news to future road projects,” the alarm bells start ringing at enviro headquarters.

Look for a counterattack in the 2012 legislature. The enviros, spearheaded by Senate Natural Resources Chair Ginny Lyons, are almost certain to try to push through new legislation to ensure that the hundreds of millions of dollars the state’s Irene response saved the taxpayers cannot be saved the next time.

The legislation will undoubtedly propose stringent and time consuming regulatory processes that no mere Governor will be allowed to short circuit, even when a hurricane shuts down 34 bridges and 531 miles of state highways.

VNRC will bring 8 registered lobbyists to the task; VPIRG, 9; Conservation Law Foundation, 4. Who will be joining the battle on behalf of Vermont taxpayers and transportation users?

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John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org)