Hartford Asks Lawmakers To Help With Route 5

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/29/2016 12:20:53 AM
Modified: 4/29/2016 3:36:49 PM

Hartford — Town leaders have decided to push back against the Vermont Agency of Transportation by lobbying legislators and refusing to approve a $70,000 payment for construction work the agency says is needed outside the Maxfield Sports Complex on Route 5.

Selectboard members also questioned whether the unexpected $70,000 increase in the cost to build a turning lane to handle traffic at Maxfield is part of a larger pattern of cost overruns on municipal projects in recent years.

“At one point it was $140,000 for that turn lane,” Selectboard Chairman Dick Grassi said during a Tuesday night meeting of the board. “Now we’re up to $270,000. That is so discouraging.”

The construction project is expected to begin in the summer, and end in the fall; on June 11, the complex will host the opening night for the Nighthawks, the Upper Valley’s New England Collegiate Baseball League franchise. 

The town and Nighthawks owner Noah Crane are working on a plan to manage the traffic flow and parking needs during the games.

The discussion occurred after interim Town Manager Pat MacQueen, Public Works Director Rich Menge and Parks and Recreation Director Tad Nunez told board members that, during a recent pre-bid meeting of contractors, an AOT official first dropped the news that the state expected the town to regrind and repave the entire width of the two-lane road at the turning lane.

As it runs past the complex, Route 5 is one lane in each direction; the project will add a left-turn lane for southbound traffic.

Nunez said this was a new and different standard than had been articulated by the state last summer, when he developed a budget to build the turning lane without any work being done to the adjacent lanes.

“The state has had that plan for quite a few months,” Nunez said. “We could have been told this a long time ago.”

Theresa Gilman, utilities and permits supervisor with the AOT, said in an interview Wednesday that the requirement to repave the entire road width is typical for such a project, and that the call had been made by design engineers who reviewed the project.

Gilman said the requirement helps to ensure that a section of roadway is uniform in its features, something she said is particularly important on a state highway and essential corridor.

Before issuing a permit, Gilman said, “we give what we call a letter of intent. It tells them what the conditions are for the permit.”

Hartford, she said, advertised for bids on the project before it received that letter of intent.

“We didn’t have the chance to do the last round of reviews,” she said. “They understood that we didn’t have any more comments. But we actually did.”

Former Selectboard member F.X. Flinn first suggested that the town seek to avoid the requirement by lobbying legislators, who might find that the need to do the extra work is a matter of opinion.

“Maybe it’s because some engineer there thinks that (extra work) would be nice,” Flinn said.

Though Menge said that a mild winter had created savings within the Public Works Department budget that could be applied to the project, the Selectboard voted to table the matter, rather than approve the expenditure.

The fact that the town can muster the funds doesn’t mean it’s a wise expenditure of taxpayer dollars, said Selectboard member Dennis Brown.

“I’m not anxious to spend the money that we saved over the winter on a new project,” he said.

Selectboard Vice Chairwoman Rebecca White volunteered to contact Hartford’s state representatives to ask them to exert pressure on the transportation agency to back down on the requirement.

Several members said that agreeing to fund the project would weaken White’s ability to make a case that Hartford should not have to undertake the repaving of the entire swath of roadway.

Gilman said on Wednesday afternoon that any decision to relax the requirement would have to come from further up the administrative ladder.

MacQueen said withholding approval for the request until the Selectboard’s next regularly scheduled meeting is not likely to delay the project.

The turning lane is a requirement under the town’s Act 250 permit for the sports complex. The town initially considered appealing the requirement for a turn lane because traffic counts were “on the bubble” regarding the need for one, but the Selectboard ultimately followed staff recommendations to build the turn lane, based on the belief that traffic was likely to grow once Maxfield was built.

On Tuesday, Nunez advised against the town changing its position on whether to build the turn lane.

“I don’t know if they would say you can’t use your property, but it would certainly make it very uncomfortable,” he said.

But Selectboard member Mike Morris argued that the town would be within its rights to submit a new appeal about the turn lane requirement, based on the fact that the cost of the project had changed so significantly.

The discussion about the turn lane led Selectboard members to express a general dissatisfaction with municipal project cost overruns, and the way in which they receive financial information from the town.

After Menge identified the savings in materials and overtime costs created by the mild winter, Morris pressed him for more information about how much, exactly, might be available.

Menge said he wasn’t sure of the amount; he and MacQueen said that they could produce a detailed report with more precise figures after the meeting.

Grassi said that the Selectboard used to receive quarterly financial reports with updates about the amount of money that had been spent from each line item of the budget, but that he hadn’t received such a report in some time.

Selectboard member Simon Dennis said that the change in pricing for the project seemed to fit into a larger pattern of cost overruns on municipal projects — he cited a project to build a small pocket park near the Quechee Covered Bridge, where estimates had changed at one point from $311,000 to $340,000.

“It’s been a source of concern about numbers coming through one way, and then when it comes time to pay for it, it turns out to be a bigger number,” Dennis said. “It has been enough of a consistent pattern over the past three years that it has aroused some suspicion.”

Dennis said he wasn’t suggesting that anyone present was at fault in any way, but said he would like to scrutinize the cases in which it has happened.

“It’s happened over and over again,” he said.

The Selectboard is scheduled to revisit the topic during its next regularly scheduled meeting on May 10.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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