Irene blows open door for bipartisan permit reform

by Rob Roper

Governor Shumlin had some good news to report on Monday. The original cost estimates to repair state and local roads after Tropical Storm Irene turned out to be high. Way high. Instead of $620 million, Vermonters will likely only be on the hook for $175 to $250 million, and the administration is cautiously optimistic that the number could sink lower.

How did the estimators miss by so much? “It’s very tough to predict costs after a storm,” said Governor Shumlin.. “But, when you bring in the National Guard, and you don’t have to hire flagegers, 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.”

The Governor’s Secretary of Transportation, Sue Minter, was more specific. “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. And, I think that does tell part of the story of why [the cost initial and updated cost estimates] are so different.”

Republican Minority Leader, Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton) raised a key 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? Another question,” said Turner, “Is this how much ‘red tape’ costs in Vermont?”

The “red tape” Turner refers to is an onerous permitting process that is oft’ cited culprit in giving Vermont it’s reputation as a bad and expensive place to do business. How much cost and inconvenience it has caused has been a matter of great debate between pro-growth and no-growth forces. Ironically, Irene’s rain clouds may have shed some sunlight onto the reality.

Secretary Minter gave one example. “We have learned already that when we close a road, we can cut our costs by a third. Some of you may have covered a story in the North East Kingdom… when we closed a road on Route 114 for four weeks. That project we did – it usually takes an average of eight years to take a bridge project from beginning to completion – 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.”

But, not everybody sees this as an opportunity. The Conservation Law Foundation’s Lake Champlain Lakekeeper, Louis Porter, titled a blogpost, “Irene opens a channel for man-made damage to rivers.” In fact, many of Vermont’s environmental groups have used the very red tape both sides of the aisle are now looking to eliminate as a tactical advantage in pushing their agendas. It’s not something they are likely to give up without a fight.

But for now, Secretary Minter says, “… I want to tell you we have, I believe, antiquated administrative procedures that require many rounds of review that we want to cut through….”

Governor 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, that we have asked the Agency of Transportation to work with the Administration to assess how we can bring this kind of good news to future road projects.”

And, Minority Leader Turner says, “Let’s hope a streamlined and more efficient process will become ‘The New Normal’.”

Not just for government, but for everybody.

Caitie Banfield contributed to this report.