Towns face potential costs under new state road rules

Hammett Hill Road, E. Montpelier. VTD/Josh Larkin
A road shows erosion damage after heavy rain. File photo by Josh Larkin/VTDigger

Citing water quality concerns, Vermont officials are proposing a host of new standards aimed at significantly reducing road erosion.

But those standards may come with a steep cost in some towns.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is taking public comment on a draft permit that will require all municipalities to inventory their roads by the end of 2020 and then, over the next 16 years, bring those roads into compliance with new stormwater runoff standards.

State officials say the long schedule for compliance, along with their education and outreach work over the past few years, should make the project feasible.

“We’ve done it in a very thoughtful, deliberate, transparent way,” said Jim Ryan, the department’s municipal roads program coordinator. “So there shouldn’t be any big surprises.”

That doesn’t mean the road ahead is easy for Vermont’s cities and towns.

“We definitely have a lot of work to do,” said Michael Hindes, Rockingham’s road superintendent.

The new road rules are a direct result of Act 64, a wide-reaching water quality law the Legislature approved in 2015. While the statute’s agricultural provisions have gotten a lot of attention, it also gave the state Agency of Natural Resources new authority over stormwater runoff from roads.

Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, a driving force behind the passage of Act 64, said the idea was to take an “all-in” approach to water quality.

Roads “make a significant contribution to sediment loading of streams, and associated with that sediment is phosphorus,” Deen said. “Hence, roads are ‘in.’”

Deen noted there are new runoff standards for state roads, too. But what’s getting attention at the moment is the state’s draft “municipal roads general permit,” which sets up a new regulatory structure for any city, town or village that has control over local roads.

The draft permit does three main things: Municipal officials must apply for a permit by July 31, 2018; they must inventory all “hydrologically connected” roads by December 2020; and they must, via a management plan with annual improvement goals, make all of those roads comply with state runoff standards by Jan. 1, 2037.

Some say that schedule is too lengthy. On Friday, the Connecticut River Conservancy issued an alert saying the Department of Environmental Conservation’s proposed permit “has far too relaxed a timeline” because it “allows road pollution to continue until 2037.”

But state officials, in a fact sheet explaining the new permit, wrote that 20 years is “an appropriate schedule in light of the fact that the general permit imposes new … requirements on previously unregulated discharges.”

Those new standards detail the proper characteristics of road features including crowns, berms, ditches and culverts.

“We’re really talking about improving the road drainage,” Ryan said. “And I really think it’s in the best interest of municipalities, even if there wasn’t a new (state permit), that they’d want to improve their road standards for public safety.”

David Deen
Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger
Deen elaborated on that argument, saying proper road infrastructure features are “also more resilient to high-water events, meaning they don’t wash out as often and in the long run keep costs lower.”

The new permit, Ryan acknowledged, is a big change and a major undertaking. There previously had been no comprehensive road runoff regulations in the state, and municipalities are responsible for about 70 percent of Vermont’s road miles.

At the same time, he said permit compliance may not be as difficult as it seems.

He said only hydrologically connected roads – generally defined as those in proximity to a water resource – are covered by the permit. On average, this accounts for about half of a town’s roadways, Ryan said.

The state has developed maps showing hydrologically connected roads statewide: That information is available on ANR’s Natural Resources Atlas.

Furthermore, he said, many of the permit’s mandated practices “are not new to towns.” Officials’ initial assessments indicate about 50 percent of roads that would be covered by the new permit already meet state standards, Ryan said.

Or, in some cases, “it could be as simple as they have one drainage culvert that’s plugged,” he said.

However, “some segments may require a bigger lift – more substantial work,” Ryan added.

State officials and regional planning commissions like the Brattleboro-based Windham Regional Commission have been trying to get municipal officials prepared for what’s coming.

“For some towns, this does feel monumental,” said Emily Davis, a Windham Regional planner.

The commission has been working with towns on road erosion inventories, and “we’re doing a lot of the field work,” Davis said.

Windham Regional officials also have been involved in coordinating state grant funding meant to help get towns started on road runoff issues.

One of those funding sources, the Department of Environmental Conservation’s “grants-in-aid” pilot project, has assisted 18 of the Windham region’s 27 towns, Davis said. The smallest award was $3,100, and the largest was $25,000.

From a statewide perspective, Deen said Act 64 created the Vermont Clean Water Fund to address costs associated with the law. And Ryan said the state is making significant investments to help towns comply, including the grants-in-aid program and the Better Roads Program, which has seen a big funding boost.

“We’re talking millions of dollars in new money that’s really part of this clean water initiative,” Ryan said.

In Rockingham, Hindes said the town recently received state funding for road runoff projects. But he wasn’t waiting for help to get started.

“We knew this was coming,” he said. “We’ve been doing (work) now for about a year.”

Hindes can’t help but wonder, however, whether towns will struggle with the new permit requirements – especially if municipal officials are counting on regular infusions of grant money.

“It’s costly to a small town,” he said. “But it has to be done.”

Despite the advance work by state and town officials, there are still a lot of questions about the municipal roads general permit and its impacts.

In Marlboro, Road Foreman David Elliott said he’s hoping a road inventory might decrease the amount of compliance work his town faces. “Until we get boots on the ground and do the inventory, we’re really not going to know,” Elliott said.

The permit itself is not yet finalized. The state is taking public comment through Oct. 27; written comments can be emailed to [email protected] or mailed to Ryan at the DEC Stormwater Management Program, 1 National Life Drive, Main 2, Montpelier VT 05620-3522.

State officials also are hosting a series of public meetings on the permit. The first is Tuesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission, 29 Main St. in Montpelier.

The other meetings each are scheduled to last from 2 to 4 p.m. They are set for Wednesday at the Johnson town offices; Oct. 16 at Martin Memorial Building in Ascutney; Oct. 17 at Brandon Town Hall; and Oct. 18 at Northern Vermont Development Association in St. Johnsbury.

Ryan said the road permit will be finalized by the end of this year.

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