Strafford Selectboard seeks residents’ input on infrastructure priorities

A motorcyclist rides down Tunbridge Road in Strafford, Vt., on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2023. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A motorcyclist rides down Tunbridge Road in Strafford, Vt., on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2023. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — Jennifer Hauck

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 10-19-2023 9:04 PM

STRAFFORD — Facing limited funds to address a backlog of aging bridges and deteriorating roads, the Selectboard plans to gather town residents for a discussion about highway infrastructure solutions.

The board will host the community meeting on Saturday at Barrett Hall to solicit public input for a long-term capital improvement plan.

“Rather than the Selectboard making tough decisions on our own, we felt it wise to have a public meeting on infrastructure where the problems could be laid out and people (would have) a chance to ask questions and give input,” Selectboard Chairman John Freitag said in an interview.

The town historically has operated without a budget for capital projects, Freitag said, and has typically depended on state grants to fund major road work.

A significant fiscal constraint is Strafford’s narrow tax base, Freitag said. The town has very few commercial properties to help shoulder the property tax burden, and the town population is relatively small, just over 1,000 residents in 420 households, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.

Strafford also needs to address its town office building, a 19th-century structure that does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act or the state fire code.

A recent conceptual plan to renovate the building by gbA Architecture & Planning, of Montpelier, had an estimated cost of around $1 million.

In spring, Town Meeting voters approved a $1.35 million operating budget for the current fiscal year. About three-fourths of that went to the highway budget to pay for highway repairs, four department employees and debt repayment on bonded projects, Freitag said.

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Freitag said the annual highway budget is only sufficient to make short-term repairs, such as patching potholes and sealing cracks in the road surfaces. Freitag likened to “putting on Band-Aids” that “end up costing more money in the long run than if the roads had been maintained properly.”

In 2012, town voters authorized $930,000 for a bond to repair 6.9 miles of paved roads, which included the Straff ord-owned por ti on of Justin Morrill Highway that connects to Tunbridge, a mile-long segment of Miller Pond Road and a section of Mine Road. The bond primarily covered the cost to grind up the asphalt and build a new road base of gravel over fabric. According to Freitag, the town planned to eventually complete the repaving. But, a decade later, only a 2-mile section of Justin Morrill Memorial Highway is complete.

In another example, Brook Road — a paved road that runs from the town center to Fay Brook Road in South Strafford — has not been maintained for years, according to Freitag, who equated it to “a junk road” riddled with potholes, dips and crumbling asphalt.

“We need to be more strategic with our resources and make residents aware that there are limits to what the town can do (at a given time),” Freitag said.

Compounding the problem is the skyrocketing cost of road construction projects, attributable to high interest rates, consumer inflation and the labor shortage.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, construction costs increased 50% between December 2020 and September 2022, and remain elevated in 2023.

“The buying power is less for towns (presently),” said Peter Gregory, executive director of Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission.

Gregory said in an interview that many Vermont towns in the Upper Valley are encountering similar challenges in funding their highway maintenance.

Thetford, for example, allocated $1.3 million in its operating budget this year to road maintenance. That’s 43% of what the town raised through taxes, according to Selectboard member Li Shen, in a posting published on her website, Sidenote. This budget includes repayment of $4 million borrowed in 2021 to repair a 3-mile section of Route 132, from the Norwich town line to Tucker Hill Road.

In addition, a 2022 study of Thetford’s highway infrastructure by Stantec, a consulting firm, tallied a list of major road and bridge rehabilitations totaling over $10 million in estimated cost, including $3.3 million to reconstruct a 2-mile section of Tucker Hill Road.

“So, for now we can’t afford another expensive road rebuild like the one needed for Tucker Hill Road,” Shen wrote.

Gregory noted that many towns also need to improve the stormwater infrastructure that protects their roads from flooding and washouts. These upgrades include installing larger or more efficient culverts, digging more adequate drainage ditches to handle high water volumes and reconstructing roads that were built without drainage.

Strafford also plans to reclassify a number of town roads whose uses have changed significantly over time, Freitag said.

“There are roads that once went to farms (that) are now single-family driveways that the town still plows,” Freitag said. “Whether we can afford this on top of all the other needs is up for question.”

Other roads that were once minimally maintained now have year-round residents and require more attention, Freitag added.

Strafford is also applying for a $14,000 municipal planning grant from the state to fund a study of the town’s highway infrastructure, which will help the town prioritize its road and bridge projects.

Gregory said that planning and prioritizing are important steps for towns to manage their highway infrastructure.

“Our best recommendation is for towns to prioritize their investing to tackle their most valuable infrastructure (first) and to work with (their regional planning commission) to identify funding sources,” Gregory said.

The Selectboard meeting will take place on Saturday at 1 p.m. in Barrett Hall.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.