December 15, 2017

Towns face potential costs under new state road rules

A road shows erosion damage after heavy rain. File photo by Josh Larkin/VTDigger

A road shows erosion damage after heavy rain. File photo by Josh Larkin/VTDigger

By Mike Faher

For VTDigger

Citing water quality concerns, Vermont officials are proposing a host of new standards aimed at significantly reducing road erosion. But those standards may come with a steep cost to municipalities.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is taking public comment on a draft permit that will require all municipalities to inventory their roads by the end of 2020 and then, over the next 16 years, bring those roads into compliance with new stormwater runoff standards. State officials say the long schedule for compliance, along with their education and outreach work over the past few years, should make the project feasible.

“We’ve done it in a very thoughtful, deliberate, transparent way,” said Jim Ryan, the department’s municipal roads program coordinator. “So there shouldn’t be any big surprises.”

That doesn’t mean the road ahead is easy for Vermont’s cities and towns. The new road rules are a direct result of Act 64, a wide-ranging water quality law the Legislature approved in 2015. While the statute’s agricultural provisions have gotten a lot of attention, it also gave the state Agency of Natural Resources new authority over stormwater runoff from roads.

Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, a driving force behind the passage of Act 64, said the idea was to take an “all-in” approach to water quality. Roads “make a significant contribution to sediment loading of streams, and associated with that sediment is phosphorus,” Deen said.

“Hence, roads are ‘in.’” Deen noted there are new runoff standards for state roads, too. But what’s getting attention at the moment is the state’s draft “municipal roads general permit,” which sets up a new regulatory structure for any city, town or village that has control over local roads.

The draft permit does three main things: Municipal officials must apply for a permit by July 31, 2018; they must inventory all “hydrologically connected” roads by December 2020; and they must, via a management plan with annual improvement goals, make all of those roads comply with state runoff standards by Jan. 1, 2037.

Some say that schedule is too lengthy. On Friday, the Connecticut River Conservancy issued an alert saying the Department of Environmental Conservation’s proposed permit “has far too relaxed a timeline” because it “allows road pollution to continue until 2037.”

But state officials, in a fact sheet explaining the new permit, wrote that 20 years is “an appropriate schedule in light of the fact that the general permit imposes new … requirements on previously unregulated discharges.” Those new standards detail the proper characteristics of road features including crowns, berms, ditches and culverts. “We’re really talking about improving the road drainage,” Ryan said.

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