State officials say Irene transportation repairs will cost less than half what they anticipated

Editor’s note: The video is of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s press conference in Northfield last week. In the footage, he talks about how important it is for Congress to act as soon as possible on funding for federal highway emergency aid.

Gov. Peter Shumlin announced on Monday that the cost of repairing the damage to transportation infrastructure caused by Tropical Storm Irene will be about half what state officials originally estimated.

Two weeks ago Neale Lunderville, the Irene recovery czar, said preliminary “worst case” scenario estimates for transportation infrastructure repairs came in at about $600 million. At a press conference on Monday, the Shumlin administration pegged those estimates at “an order of magnitude lower” — between $175 million to $250 million.

“Why the difference?” Shumlin asked rhetorically. “It’s very tough to predict costs after a storm. That’s why there was no special session of the Legislature.”

Lunderville warned that the new road repair estimates are preliminary. There may be new unforeseen damage that emerges – sinkholes, bridge abutment scours, roadside collapses – that workers have not yet identified.

The dramatic shift brings the overall estimate of Irene damage well below the roughly $900 million mark state officials were citing in mid-October. The new grand total is about $500 million and includes $250 million for new emergency and long-term highway repair costs, $50 million to construct a new Vermont State Hospital, $50 million for stabilizing the old state office complex and renovating or building new space, about $19 million in individual assistance and $140 million in repairs to town roads, bridges and public facilities.

Shumlin said the lower estimates are good news for the state budget and taxpayers.

One reporter asked officials how they got the numbers so “wrong.” Jeb Spaulding, secretary of the Agency of Administration, said, “I don’t think we got it wrong. … If we’re going to make a mistake, we’d rather be on the conservative side.”

Minter admitted that their original calculations were way off in part because she said workers were so absorbed in the immediate aftermath of the emergency that they didn’t have time to run the numbers precisely. The new estimates are based on 640 detailed damage reports the state submitted to the federal government. The reports include costs for labor, materials, equipment and movement of materials.

“We asked for estimates at the same time workers were in emergency mode,” Minter said.

Joe Flynn, incident commander for the Rutland area transportation headquarters, said VTrans workers were putting in 16 to 20 hours a day and “there was a chaos and a fog and we wanted to do the best we could.” “If you want to err, you want to err on the high side,” he said.

State officials attributed the drastic reduction in costs to a variety of factors, including the efficacy of emergency construction techniques and the extraordinary dedication of VTrans workers, the Vermont National Guard and private contractors. In all, 500 miles of roads were reopened in just two months after the Aug. 28 storm. Two bridges and nine miles of highways – Route 107 in Stockbridge, Route 106 in Weathersfield and Route 131 in Cavendish – remain closed.

“No one imagined in the first and second week after the storm that so much would be accomplished,” Minter said.

The state also saved millions of dollars by taking short cuts during the post-Irene emergency that normally would be prohibited under state and federal laws. The standard pre-construction procedures for road and bridge repair were abandoned in order to expedite the process, according to Sue Minter, deputy commissioner of the Agency of Transportation. The processes that are normally followed for transportation projects — federal and state permitting, environmental mitigation, design review, planning, right-of-way purchases – went by the wayside.

Transportation workers didn’t have to keep roads open and contend with traffic. In some cases they used gravel and rock dug from rivers and collected from fields where floodwaters had left deposits of aggregate.

Temporary road closures during construction may become the new VTrans policy post-Irene. The governor said Vermonters may have to put up with the inconvenience of detours as the state rebuilds roads and bridges. He anticipates less money from the U.S. Department of Transportation in the coming years, and the road workarounds may be one way to save the state substantial sums of money and reduce the length of time for project completion.

Minter pointed to a bridge project in Newark as an example of how a brief road closure can hasten VTrans work and save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars. A bridge on Route 114 in the town was closed to traffic for one month during construction. As a consequence, it cost $300,000 to build instead of the average $1.5 million pricetag for bridge installation, she said. The bridge was completed in three months, as opposed to several years.

Shumlin said his administration’s objective is to figure out “how do we make it (transportation construction) smarter, cheaper and more efficient” in the future.

The new estimates “relieve pressure” on the state’s budget, Jeb Spaulding, secretary of the Agency of Administration said.

The state still needs help from the federal government – and a lift of the $100 million cap on federal highway emergency aid – but the lower estimate brings the state “a lot closer” to recovering from the disaster without a “decades-long” impact on Vermont’s transportation system, which had a large backlog of badly deteriorated roadways and bridges before Irene hit.

If Congress approves lifts the cap and the state receives more than $100 million in federal emergency highway aid and the maximum amount of public assistance through FEMA (the 90 percent/10 percent match rate), the state would need $40 million to cover transportation repairs. Beth Pearce, the state treasurer, has said there is $83 million in untapped revenue bonding capacity that could cover this exigency.

So far, the state has paid about $21 million out of pocket for Irene expenses, Spaulding said. In addition, Lexington Inc., the state’s insurer, has issued $10 million in insurance claims and Congress has paid about $20 million toward transportation costs. “We’re in no immediate crisis, the state is paying its bills,” he said.

Anne Galloway

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  • don eggleston

    “The state also saved millions of dollars by taking short cuts during the post-Irene emergency that normally would be prohibited under state and federal laws.”

    So, anyone who says that Vermont’s environmental regulations aren’t costly and don’t inhibit economic growth is proven wrong.

    So, roads and bridges get rebuilt in a fraction of the normal time and at a fraction of the normal cost. Let’s make this the new normal.

  • Alex Barnham

    I am pleased to see a lower actual cost. Good job.

  • “A bridge on Route 114 in the town was closed to traffic for one month during construction. As a consequence, it cost $300,000 to build instead of the average $1.5 million pricetag for bridge installation, she said. The bridge was completed in three months, as opposed to several years.”

    Hmmmm, nothing there about environmental regulations … but still … nuthin’ to see here … must be them libral envirofreaks … move along now.

    And elsewhere … well, let’s just go back to pretending that destroying our only source of food, water, air and shelter (aka the physical environment) is a sensible fiscal policy.

    No wonder the banksters are winning.

  • David Usher

    I have long maintained that Vermont’s very high ‘transaction costs’ (the overheads including regulatory compliance, permitting, administrative and judicial delays for reviews, appeals, etc.) that are incurred to build anything of consequence in this state add unnecessary delays, expense and increase the costs of doing business here.

    The exceptional work done recovering from Irene’s damage shows that Vermont could be far more efficient in using tax and private dollars.

  • Don Peabody

    Yes. When you disregard the wellbeing of life forms—humans, included—you can drastically reduce the monetary costs associated with development. We didn’t need Irene and a subsequent suspension of regulations—and common sense—to reach that conclusion: there’s abundant proof in the world’s waters, air and land; babies born “pre-polluted” testify to the fact; the proof is all around us that, as long as we’re not required to give a thought to consequences, we can do all manner of harm in the name of “get ‘er done.”

  • Jonathan Miller

    Interesting how not following ‘regulations’ is the prime reason for the supposed savings.
    What ‘regulations’ were not followed and the consequences look like a good follow-up article.
    Looks like the same demonizing propaganda of the word regulations as the word liberal has received.

    Please look into this in a future article…. we would like to be better informed.

  • fred jansen

    On the opposite side from Mr. Miller (and in response to Mr. Peabody’s overly dramatic posting), I would like to see any evidence that any wildlife was actually harmed in violation of any state or federal law or regulation in the making of these speedy and less-expensive post-Irene repairs. Unless anyone can show that not following the regulations actually resulted in any harm, the regulations should be reconsidered.

    BTW, it’s not Krazy Konservatives who are saying that regulations increase project costs and cause delays, in this case it was the Deputy Commissioner of the Vt. Agency of Transportation who said it. I.e., your Vermont state government.

  • Alex Barnham

    I’m sorry but I don’t understand all the criticism. I’d say a job well done…repairs were done quickly at less cost than normal…is not that we needed? For me, I’m thankful that roads were reopened and bridges fixed so we can have food, electricity, and get to work. What is your problem?

  • Ronald Pulcer

    Going forward for non-emergency situations, and regarding the “temporary road closures” (assuming there are sufficient detours), I would much rather have to deal with short-term detours and road closures (or tele-commuting) than long-term “cutting corners” on health and safety and environmental factors.

    If Vermont can eventually get full broadband and cellphone service statewide, then in times of planned road construction projects, some people would be able to work from home and stay off the roads during that time period. That would help save gasoline costs, and allow the road crews to work more quickly without interruptions. If roads are temporarily closed and motorists drive on designated detours, it would also help create a safer working environment for construction workers.

    Hopefully, we can learn some lessons on how to save costs in future planned construction, but at the same time let’s not go backwards as far as health and safety and environmental concerns.

    It would be nice to hear exactly where Vermont “cut corners” in order to have more informed discussion and decisions as what corners can be cut, and what corners should not be cut in non-emergency situations.

  • Jonathan Miller

    Interesting…. I am calling for more in depth information about the accusation to make a reasoned opinion. The article gave us no facts other than an official’s statement that not following ‘regulations’ saved millions of dollars.

    Regulations are generally enacted to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. So typically following protects you and me.
    I also understand that in an emergency following some regulations may not be the best course.

    As a licensed architect sworn to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public I am genuinely interested in finding out which regulations needed to be bypassed and why. As Vermont citizens our public officials need to tell us why they did not follow the law other than a blanket… ‘it was an emergency’.

    I do not respond well to the general statement of ‘regulations bad… expensive’ so let’s get rid of them all.
    That could mean letting anyone dump or bury toxic materials in your neighborhood. Or build a next generation nuclear power plant there.
    Community citizens and landowners deserve a say on anything that affects them.

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