Shumlin looks ahead to to 2016; weighs in on Middlebury rail project, solar siting
MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin said he will quietly meet with stakeholders in the massive Middlebury rail bridges project in hopes of defusing, and settling, a growing dispute between the town and Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) officials regarding the size and duration of the estimated $40 million construction plan.
Shumlin made this disclosure during an interview with the Addison Independent at his Montpelier office on Dec. 30. The governor also touched upon another hot button topic in Addison County — the siting of solar arrays — and some statewide issues as he prepares for his sixth and final year as the state’s chief executive.
It was a few weeks ago that Shumlin received a letter from Bruce Hiland, principal owner of Middlebury’s Battell Block, urging him to convince VTrans to modify a proposal to replace the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges with new bridges that had three more feet of vertical clearance — from the current 18 feet, 9 inches to 21 feet — to allow for double-stack rail cars. Largely because the rail bed would have to be blasted and lowered three feet to achieve that clearance, the project would span parts of four years.
Hiland and more than 60 others who signed his letter have argued that many downtown businesses will not be able to survive the many months of noise, dust, traffic detours and artificial light the project would bring to the downtown.
Opponents have argued that VTrans should simply replace the bridges at their current height of 18 feet, 9 inches. State and federal authorities, however, have stated the bridges must provide enough clearance to accommodate double-stack rail cars. The federal standard for such cars is 23.5 feet, and the Middlebury bridges have already been given a waiver to reduce that clearance to 21 feet. But that height will still require excavation of the rail bed and related drainage improvements, variables that officials say are substantial contributors to the possible four-year duration of the project.
Shumlin promised to meet with key officials to determine the necessity of the 21-foot clearance requirement and press on whether the two spans could be replaced more expeditiously.
“This project has evolved in the last year or so into one that is clearly going to take longer than first envisioned — which is a problem for downtowns,” Shumlin said. “We’ve gone from (a project duration of) a year and a half to now they’re saying three, or maybe four. So what I’m going to do is really ask the tough questions about how soon will we be using double stack cars on that track? Are we ever going to be using double-stack on that track? I think we have to pause and ask those questions. What I’m hoping is that we can have a ‘Vermont objective conversation’ about the best approach, as opposed to legal fights.”
The governor said he had been a party to a similar conversation several years ago, as a state senator, regarding a proposed rail project for Rockingham-Bellows Falls.
“There was a lot of community push-back because of the length of time they were going to be in there,” Shumlin recalled. “In the end, it was determined that double-stack cars will be used on that line, most likely, in the next 10 to 40 years, and we went through the long process.”
But he noted the Middlebury rail segment is not part of a main carrier line for freight.
“I think the question is, on more of a secondary line (like that which flows through Middlebury), how realistic is it that we are going to be using double-stacks on that line?” he said. “I don’t think anyone disagrees that these bridges need to be rebuilt. I realize that transportation planners have to plan for the future. What we have to ask is, ‘Are we planning for a future that’s going to happen, or a future that’s never going to happen. Are double-stack cars going to be used on that spur?’ It’s not one of the main lines. It will never be one of our main rail lines.”
Shumlin declined to specify which parties he would contact, but he said he realizes time is of the essence, as work crews are slated to begin work on drainage components of the project next summer.
“What I can do is ask that we have a quiet, objective conversation among all the parties to make sure we are making the right decision — and that should happen fairly soon,” he said. “I’m not talking about big meetings and lots of process, frankly. I think it’s my responsibility as governor to make sure that when you have two very different views of the same project, that everybody is making the right judgments. Often, I find the truth is somewhere in the middle.”
The governor added he realizes the importance of keeping downtowns strong.
“I’m sympathetic to the concerns of folks who recognize that with online shopping growing and retailers competing against a pretty tough evolution, we have to be sensitive as to how we promote, as opposed to being an obstacle, downtown growth and their continued strength,” he said.
Shumlin acknowledged that Middlebury could seek alteration (or an appeal) of the rail bridges project through the Legislature, but that would be a complicated route, he noted.
“The Legislature passes the transportation budget every year, so the Legislature does act on individual transportation projects,” he said. “The Legislature has the ability to change the laws in any way that they wish. But it’s complicated because most of these projects are paid for with federal (matching funds). The feds pay the lion’s share of the costs and the Legislature can’t just buck federal law.”
Ultimately, the state should be pleased to see improvements along its western rail corridor, according to Shumlin.
“I’m thrilled that we’re having this conversation because we have turned our back on rail for too long,” he said. “When we look at a snow-less winter, we know that climate change is upon us and every cargo car that goes on a track gets three diesel-spewing trucks off the road; and Route 7 is a dangerous road. The fact we are finally talking about having passenger service and faster cargo from Bennington to Burlington is a very positive thing. But to do that, we’ve got to make change.”
Shumlin said he remains a staunch supporter of Vermont’s steady transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. He conceded there are some communities in the state — like New Haven — that are bearing a disproportionate share of solar arrays due to their terrain and proximity to electricity distribution lines. The governor said he realizes some of the solar projects are disrupting view sheds, but suggested that this is a price society will have to bear if it is to wean itself off of fossil fuel and reduce the state’s carbon footprint.
“Anyone who thinks climate change isn’t the biggest challenge mankind is facing right now is in denial,” Shumlin said. “All we have to do is look at the weather patterns here in Vermont and across the country in the past 10 days to see we are in a lot of trouble.”
As a sign of progress the state has made, Shumlin said there are 10 times as many solar projects in the state right now than when he took office, and believes that number will again double within the next few years.
“The challenge, as we build this out, is how do we do it in a way that also protects Vermont’s extraordinary beauty and environmental ethic?” Shumlin said. “What we should be doing is continuing to build policies that support locally generated power. My own view is that when you start talking about 20-megawatt projects that take up 110 acres, where we don’t have the transmission policy to transmit that power into the local grid, you’re not making progress, because you’ve got to spend all kinds of money on transmission. Our model should be locally generated power that communities can use in their own backyards to replace fossil fuel.”
To that end, Shumlin believes the state should provide the greatest incentives to smaller projects that can be built on rooftops or on brownfields and other less conspicuous sites.
He does not believe the state should adopt additional review panels or other bureaucracy to evaluate solar projects. Shumlin believes the Public Service Board, or PSB, should continue to fulfill that role.
“What we shouldn’t do is create another layer of bureaucracy that would make the development of renewables impossible in this state,” he said.
The governor said that since the PSB ultimately has to base decisions on what is in the best interest for the entire state, it cannot be entirely swayed by a community’s recommendation that a particular project be approved or rejected. He cited, as an example, the opposition in Windham County to a Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant that was nonetheless built.
That said, Shumlin was pleased when the Legislature this past session passed a bill that would become Act 56. That law, among other things, automatically grants party status to host towns on solar project applications that come before the PSB; establishes minimum setback requirements for solar projects; and allows communities to prescribe landscaping work to mitigate the visual impacts of such arrays.
“I don’t think the Public Service Board process circumvents local control or input; I think that’s a myth,” Shumlin said. “It (the PSB) is a quasi-judicial board that listens to the evidence, and when communities weigh in on a project or projects, they take that into consideration.”
Also on the issue of energy, Shumlin said he continues to support the Addison Natural Gas Project calling for a 41-mile pipeline to be built from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes. He said the project should give Addison County residents access to a cheaper, cleaner fuel source as the state makes its transition to renewables.
Looking ahead, Shumlin will deliver his last state-of-the-state message to lawmakers at the Statehouse this Thursday, Jan. 7. He hinted that his message would emphasize continuing the work to achieve the mission outlined when he came into office five years ago.
“I have had the privilege of holding this office for three terms because I really wanted to make this economy work for every single Vermonter, not just those who are already doing well,” Shumlin said. “I said at the time we need to do some pretty bold stuff to make that happen.”
He pointed to the new universal pre-K law, a new emphasis on rehabilitating those addicted to drugs instead of simply incarcerating them, offering the potential of two free years of state college to Vermont high school graduates, and the extension of health care benefits to more Vermonters, as among measures he believes will lead to a better economy and better job prospects for citizens.
The Shumlin administration has minted a new website, www.2016stateofthestate.com, that offers statistics on how the state has progressed in the areas the governor has emphasized. Figures show pre-K enrollment in Vermont will increase to 6,000 in 2015, up from around 3,800 in 2011; Vermont inmate population is hovering around 1,700, compared to the 2,600 that had been projected for this year; around 2,800 Vermonters were being treated for opiate addiction in 2015, compared to roughly 1,700 in 2014; and less than 4 percent of Vermonters didn’t have health insurance in 2014, compared to 7.5 percent in 2010. The governor also reported the addition of 17,000 new jobs during his tenure.
“I think we have made some real progress,” Shumlin said, “but we have more work to do.”
Some of that work will focus on keeping more young Vermonters in the Green Mountain State. Many of them are leaving to pursue economic opportunities in other states, Shumlin acknowledged.
“Unless we can make Vermont and New England a place where new generations want to live, our population is not going to grow,” he said. That will mean making the state more affordable, which includes lowering the cost of housing and health care, as well as providing more good paying jobs, Shumlin said.
The shrinking population of youth has been apparent through a steady decline in student enrollment at public schools, which currently educate around 78,000 children. That’s down roughly 26,000 students compared to 20 years ago, according to state figures.
Shumlin said he’s pleased to see many of the state’s supervisory unions embrace Act 46, a law that provides financial incentives for school regions that consolidate their school governance and budgeting. Locally, the Addison Central, Addison Northwest and Rutland Northeast supervisory unions will hold referenda this winter on school governance consolidation.
“Act 46 is working better than my wildest dreams and I suspect better than most people would have anticipated,” Shumlin said. “Let’s remember the challenge: 20,000 fewer students; a delivery system that hasn’t changed much in the last 50 to 100 years; and quality opportunities being removed from kids because the pressure of property taxes in some of our smallest schools is requiring school boards to take options away from kids to keep property taxes from going absolutely crazy.”
Shumlin noted Gov. Phil Hoff pitched a mandatory school consolidation proposal during the 1960s that he said proved “extraordinarily” unpopular. History shows that Vermonters have been willing to pay a premium to maintain local schools, even as around half of them currently serve fewer than 100 students, Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe recently stated. But every taxpayer has a limit, officials noted, and Act 46 is being seen as a promising measure to contain school costs by encouraging consolidation and share educational resources.
“If you had said to me, ‘Hey, we’re going to put together a partnership with local communities that uses incentives to get communities to break down old assumptions and start thinking creatively about how we do better for the future, I would have said ‘That’s going to be very tough to pull off,’” Shumlin said. “But look what’s happening.
“This is a conversation we needed to have, it’s a partnership we should have had a long time ago, and I think Act 46 will be seen as the biggest change in our education delivery system in the last 100 years in Vermont. I am very encouraged by the work that’s being done in local communities.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.