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Town braces for impact of 11% state highway budget cut

Cutbacks in plowing low traffic roads may require town intervention

August 11, 2011
WOLFEBORO — Public Works Director Dave Ford alerted selectmen to his concerns about how the 11 percent cut imposed on the Department of Transportation (DOT) may impact the town's own snowplowing operations this winter.

While the DOT has yet to release a final policy statement on how it will cope with reduced its manpower and funding, there is no question, Ford said, that lesser-traveled state roads will not be plowed as often the next two winters, thanks to the 11 percent cut in the biennial budget that went into effect July 1. A total of 42 positions in the DOT's five maintenance districts have been cut. Also, even though the overall cut is 11 percent, cuts in operations supporting winter maintenance were larger: funding for hired equipment was cut 24 percent ($2.8 million a year), and funding for sand, salt and other materials was cut 26 percent ($4.5 million a year). At least one maintenance shed per district will be closed.

Earlier newspaper reports indicated that roads with fewer than 15,000 trips per day would not be plowed between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m. and that the minimum snow coverage before plowing would increase from two to five inches. Ford urged selectmen and residents to wait for more specific information before coming to any conclusions, but he warned that the town will have to plow some roads for safety reasons if the state does not.

A later e-mail Ford shared with this newspaper from Caleb Dobbins, State Maintenance Engineer at DOT, provided more clarity on how the department will implement the decrease in plowing.

The state already decreases plowing between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m., Dobbins pointed out, due to the drop in traffic volume. What will happen is that the roads will be plowed less frequently, particularly those roads with traffic volume under 5,000 trips per day: the state will be using "essentially the same practice that Maine . . . and Vermont utilize during their evening hours" doubling the daytime plowing cycle time.

Dobbins noted "These changes in winter maintenance only come after cutting all other maintenance programs (drainage, pavement, tree trimming, mowing, etc.) to emergency levels that can be accomplished using state forces."

Ford reminded selectmen that the DOT budget cut is a direct result of allowing the $30 registration surcharge implemented in 2009 as a temporary funding source to expire on June 30, 2011. The legislature was supposed to come up with other funding sources to replace the surcharge but did not. "It's pretty sad," Ford said, noting that Sen. Jeb Bradley had spoken in favor dropping the surcharge when he met with selectmen on March 9.

Town Manager Dave Owen pointed out the reduced plowing will affect the school budget. If buses are not able to negotiate their morning routes safely there will be more snow days. Some people will not be able to get to work and others will have to start later, once roads are cleared.

Selectman Chair Sarah Silk pointed out that since Huggins no longer has a maternity ward, the police had better be prepared to deliver babies for snowbound mothers.

Selectman Linda Murray cited the DOT cuts as another example of state legislators downshifting costs to towns. She asked Ford to prepare an estimate of potential budget impact.

Ford asked for a few weeks to prepare such a report, in the expectation that DOT will release it's final policy statement and clarify where the plowing gaps are likely to occur.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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