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Jim Kenyon: When VTrans tallies cars on the border, they count for nothing

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kevin McPhee Sr., right, and Alex Beloin, left, of the Vermont Agency of Transportation count vehicles and record the states on their license plates as they enter from New Hampshire on Interstate 89 in White River Junction, Vt., Wednesday, April 1, 2020. The count will continue 24 hours a day. Stephanie Brackin, of the Vermont COVID-19 Joint Information Center said the count is an effort to predict the state’s future healthcare needs. Workers are not capturing license plate numbers, she said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Columnist
Published: 4/18/2020 9:53:02 PM
Modified: 4/18/2020 10:05:17 PM

For state highway workers in Vermont, springtime is meant for filling potholes, repairing guardrails and clearing roadsides of winter debris.

Last month, however, the order came down from Montpelier that due to the coronavirus outbreak, blue-collar workers at the Agency of Transportation, better known as VTrans, would trade their rakes and shovels for pens and clipboards.

Starting April 1, their new job was to count cars at 38 border crossings, including a bunch in the Upper Valley.

From the cabs of their 10-wheeler dump trucks, VTrans workers have spent their days — and nights — recording where cars coming into the state are from, based on license plates.

At seven crossings, including the Interstate 89 bridge between White River Junction and West Lebanon, Vermont is tracking cars leaving the state as well.

Gov. Phil Scott’s administration maintains it’s merely a “data collection effort” that doesn’t involve taking down individual license plate numbers — just the state the vehicle is registered in.

Still, tracing the comings and goings of law-abiding motorists is a bit Orwellian for my taste. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that the government is watching.

Civil liberties worries aside, stationing state employees around the clock at border crossings strikes me as a waste of taxpayers’ dollars.

In the first two weeks, the “mission” (the state’s description, not mine) cost $255,622, including overtime pay for some workers. That could fill a lot of potholes.

On the bright side, the operation has been a boon to the port-o-let industry. Every car-counting post is equipped with a portable privy.

Stephanie Brackin, a spokeswoman for Vermont’s COVID-19 Joint Information Center, told me via email that the monitoring of border crossings will “provide health care leaders with data to assist with predicting future health care capacity needs.”

Perhaps. Then again, it could just be a way to discourage Vermonters from sneaking across the border to New Hampshire liquor outlets, where booze is much cheaper.

Vermont officials are still compiling the data, but between April 1-12, 50.8% of incoming traffic sported Vermont plates and 49.2% had out-of-state plates. Since the governor’s order placing limits on travel had gone into effect, there’s been an overall decline in traffic of 53%, Brackin said.

At a press conference last Monday, Scott was asked what precipitated the car-counting endeavor. A “number of people” in southern Vermont had expressed concern about the volume of incoming traffic. “We wanted to collect the data to get a baseline,” he said.

The state has also put up blinking mobile signs (“If you enter Vermont to stay, self-isolate 14 days.”) at each crossing. They’re a good reminder — and I’m betting much less costly than having highway workers camp out.

Apparently, New Hampshire doesn’t share Vermont’s need to know. While VTrans workers counted vehicles at the White River Junction-West Lebanon border on a recent afternoon, their New Hampshire counterparts were picking up debris on the other side of the I-89 bridge.

To see the mission in action, I drove up and down the Vermont side of the Connecticut River in the Upper Valley.

At one border crossing, it took a while to catch the car-counter’s attention. I think he was counting more sheep than cars. But I don’t mean to sound critical. Who doesn’t enjoy a short nap at lunchtime?

At another border crossing on Wednesday, from his vantage point in the parking lot of a closed pizza shop on Route 5 in Fairlee, Eric Lang kept track of cars and trucks crossing the bridge from Orford. (Commercial vehicles aren’t counted.)

More than halfway into Lang’s eight-hour shift, New Jersey was the leader — after New Hampshire, of course — in out-of-state plates, with four. He didn’t count a farm tractor, which was understandable since it didn’t have a license plate.

Scanning his clipboard, Lang rattled off what else he’d witnessed that morning. “I’ve had one Massachusetts, one Connecticut, one Tennessee and a Florida,” he told me.

Employees at the convenience store across the street bring Lang an occasional cup of coffee, but not everyone he encounters is so kind. Already that morning, two drivers had shown him hand signals as they passed his truck. They were on finger short of a peace sign.

Their license plates?

Lang was almost too embarrassed to say. “Vermont,” he replied.

If nothing else, Vermont’s car-counting mission is painstaking. Even the small bridge over the Connecticut connecting Lyme to Thetford rates a 24-hour sentry.

Jesse Pacht lives next to the bridge on the Thetford side. He’s the maintenance manager at Long Wind Farm, which grows organic tomatoes in greenhouses adjacent to his house.

If VTrans’ dump truck was any closer to his property, social distancing would, literally, be out the window. “It’s a little disconcerting,” Pacht said, standing a safe distance away while working in a tool shed. “They’re watching my house 24/7.”

On the plus side, Pacht said, “I don’t have to lock my cars at night.”

Vermont has started to “scale back” its car counting, Brackin, the state spokeswoman, told me Thursday. “The state has now collected the data needed to determine how effective COVID-19 mitigation measures are in reducing travel,” she said.

On Saturday, however, I noticed VTrans workers, clipboards and pens in hand, remained at several border crossings in the Upper Valley for the 18th straight day.

But who’s counting?

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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