Category Archives: Transportation

Dick-Swinging at the DMV

, From left: Officers Buddy, Bubba and Junior

Does anyone else see a problem with this photo?

The DMV chose this image of burly officers with pimped-out pickups to represent its own police department, whose tasks are mainly bureaucratic in nature. It’s a picture of testosterone run amuck, straight out of a Boss Hogg wet dream.

It’s a small thing, but it illustrates a toxic cop culture. It’s the old-fashioned image of policing — a matter of billy clubs and guns and beefy officers enforcing the peace. It’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world, no place for nuance or sensitivity. That shit’ll get you killed, bud.

Could the DMV have possibly hustled up a picture including at least one female officer? Or a person of color? Or someone who doesn’t look like a former football player?

And those trucks. Good grief. Overcompensating much?

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Did Phil Scott break the law this morning, or just bend it?

The official Phil Scott Twitter account sent this out today.

That’s some dedication there, being out on a chilly October morning, waving the signs just a few feet away from interstate freeway traffic…

… hm.

In many places, it’s illegal for candidates to stand that close to the freeway. Looks like Phil’s most enthusiastic companion is only a few feet from the right of way, and the candidate himself is about ten feet off the pavement.

But is it illegal for Team Scott to be standing in that particular location? Unclear.

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No, it’s really not “your town”

The good people of Shelburne are in a tizzy because their blessed gemeinschaft might be tainted by the slightest hint of industrialization. The Burlington Free Press, which pays no mind to antiwar protests but is always anxious to report the plight of affluent subscribers:

Protesters against a project that would place a salt transfer and storage facility near the LaPlatte River in Shelburne donned rain gear and gathered at the Shelburne Community School on Sunday afternoon to make their voices heard.

Horrors!

You know, I have a lot of trouble ginning up outrage on behalf of comfortable, affluent white folks, which is basically the population of Shelburne. (Lookin’ at you, Bruce Lisman!) Especially when I read the overwrought rhetoric of Selectboard chair Gary von Stange:

“This is our town,” von Stange said. “This is our state. These are our lives and our children. This is our community. Champlain is our lake. The LaPlatte is our river. We not only have the right, we have the obligation to fight for our children and our children’s children. There is no compromising when it comes to safety.”

Oh, for God’s sake. Our lives? Our children? Our lake? Our river? All under threat because of a facility that will be invisible and almost inaudible? When its operator promises to abide by strict environmental standards?

This is the kind of apocalyptic verbiage that gives environmentalism a bad name. Do we really have to fight every development as if it will somehow transform Vermont into a Mad Max hellscape?

But that’s not the real problem here. The real problem is that railways enjoy the most all-encompassing, ironclad property rights of just about any entity you can think of.

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With friends like these

With apologies to Mr. Harwood.

Early front-runner for Sound Bite of the Campaign Season is former Governor Jim Douglas. He had given a hearty endorsement speech at Phil Scott’s campaign launch; afterward, VTDigger’s Mark Johnson asked him what issue Scott is identified with.

Douglas’ short answer: “Uh, you’ve stumped me.”

That’s bad. The actual audio is worse. You can hear it at VTDigger, but here’s a transcript:

Johnson: So what’s the issue you identify him with?

Douglas: The issue I identif — ? Dunno if there’s a specific issue, um, we talked about some today, but uh [pause] uh, you stumped me. Again.

[facepalm]

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Minter’s pickle

Had a chat with Transportation Secretary Sue Minter about the discrimination lawsuit filed last week by three former VTrans workers. It creates a real dilemma for her; as head of the agency, she’s constrained from addressing the facts of the case. But as a potential gubernatorial candidate, she can’t be seen as anything less than fully supportive of LGBT employment rights, and she certainly can’t even be suspected of tolerating a culture of, ahem, intolerance.

I understand her situation, but that doesn’t make it any less pressing. It’s the fundamental problem with being an administration official while also exploring a candidacy: your first responsibility is to your employer. I imagine that’s why Deb Markowitz decided she had to choose one or the other.

“Obviously, I cannot comment on the specifics of the case,” she said, and added: “Any allegation of discrimination or harassment is very disturbing, and we take it seriously.” She then pivoted to the steps she’s taken to ensure a welcoming workplace.

“When I came into this job, I learned of some very well-known cases that had gone to the Human Rights Commission. I became very concerned. I’ve visited garages, driven snowplows, washed bridges, I’ve been a flagger. I’ve observed so many things, most of them positive, but I know that in any large organization, not everyone is on the same page.

… “We’ve worked hard to build a culture of diversity and tolerance. There is a very clear zero-tolerance policy. We reinforce that through trainings, and make sure everyone understands that the agency should be free of harassment and discrimination. …We’ve made it clear to managers and supervisors that they should respect all complaints. … About one year ago, we updated the Equal Employment Opportunity policy to include gender identity and transgender status as protected classes.”

Which is all very well, but I have a hard time believing the three plaintiffs fabricated their complaints. There’s no real upside to filing a baseless lawsuit or to allowing yourself to be publicly identified as a complainer.

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This could take a little air out of the Sue Minter balloon

Of all the state’s cabinet positions, the Agency of Transportation is one of the friendlier posts for an ambitious politico. Everybody’s in favor of roads and highways, including conservative Republicans. A lot of your funding comes from the feds. You make friends with the generous donors in the construction business. You get to do a whole lot of high-profile announcements and ribbon-cuttings. You get to look strong and purposeful in times of trouble.

It’s unlikely that, say, Human Services would be a stepping stone to higher office. (Just ask Doug “Sacrificial Lamb” Racine.) But Transportation Secretary Sue Minter? She’s got high hopes for the governorship, or so it is said.

Which is not to say that trouble can’t erupt, seemingly out of nowhere. Dan D’Ambrosio of the Burlington Free Press:

Three former employees of the Vermont Agency of Transportation say they were verbally abused — and in one case physically abused — and passed over for promotions and pay raises because they are gay and lesbian.

Oopsie. The three, who all quit to get away from the abuse, have filed a discrimination lawsuit. The details are not pretty.

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What’s your favorite boondoggle?

Hey look, the state’s talking about boosting passenger trains! Cue the Republican Outrage Machine.

The [Vermont] Agency of Transportation has issued its first statewide rail plan in nearly a decade. The proposal envisions new passenger routes to Burlington, Montreal, Manchester and Bennington…

… The combined price tag for the 20-year plan totals $665 million, well more than the $380 million in state and federal funding anticipated over the same time frame.

I can hear it now: a waste of taxpayer dollars! Unconscionable subsidies for a bygone system! Passenger rail serves only a small affluent clientele of train buffs!

Republicans, after all, have been trying to kill Amtrak for years because they believe passenger rail should pay its own way.

Which sounds nice in theory, makes a good sound bite. Problem is, there isn’t a transportation system of any kind that can stand on its own two feet. They all require massive subsidization.

Roads and highways, well, that’s easy. Construction and upkeep is entirely a taxpayer-funded enterprise, with the very occasional exception of toll roads. If we actually apportioned the costs on the basis of usership, the cost of long-distance trucking would go through the roof. Cargo trains would suddenly seem like a bargain by comparison. And if inter-city commutes reflected their true costs, well, let’s just say CCTA would have to greatly expand its LINK service.

But air travel is the big enchilada. An airport manager once told me, “Airports inherently lose money.” The infrastructure and security costs are borne by taxpayers, most of whom rarely or never use the facilities. (Talk about taking from the poor and giving to the rich.)

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Bunched Knicker Syndrome Strikes Top Solon

BKS: “a sense of heightened distress keenly felt by the self-important following a minor annoyance.”

Kudos to WCAX-TV’s Kyle Midura for coming up with a frothy little confection of a political story that’s sweet to the taste, vanishes in the mouth like a good meringue, and leaves you wanting just one more bite. Or maybe the whole damn pie.

The story’s about the Tuesday “news event” featuring Congressman Peter Welch and Transportation Secretary Sue Minter at a photogenically decrepit bridge in East Montpelier. They were backdropped by lime green and orange-vested construction workers as they bemoaned the lack of Congressional action on long-term transportation funding.

And it seems that there are some hurt fee-fees from a pair of politicos who think they ought to have been invited. Republican Pat Brennan, chair of the House Transportation Committee, and might-as-well-be-a-Republican Dick Mazza, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, were left jonesin’ for a little camera time.

“We are heavily involved, so you would think we would’ve been asked to be there,” said Rep. Pat Brennan, R-Colchester.

As for Mazza, he cemented his well-earned reputation as the least Democratic of all Democrats by complaining that the presser included a partisan attack on Republicans in Congress. That’s right: a Democrat accusing Democrats of playing politics. The horror!

“I was told that it was a non-partisan news conference, but I didn’t see anyone other than the Democrats,” said Mazza.

Wait wait. He “was told”? That seems to imply he knew about the presser in advance. If so, he’s got no complaint. But let’s move on.

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The real lessons of Plasan

Vermont’s pro-business community couldn’t hardly wait to score a cheap political point (and, as usual, soil the state’s reputation) after Plasan’s announcement that it was relocating to Michigan. Decent interval, bah: we’ve got a boilerplate press release ready to go.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott did the honors for the VTGOP, offering a quick word of sympathy to Plasan’s workforce and then pivoting to the red meat:

This announcement is yet another clear sign that we in Montpelier must put our full focus on not only protecting, but on growing Vermont’s economy and face the reality that we are competing in a regional, national and global marketplace. We cannot continue to blame “forces beyond our control” for our job losses, but turn the mirror back on ourselves and ask ourselves: “What can we do to change the direction of this trend? How can we make Vermont better?”

The best part is Scott’s dismissal of “forces beyond our control,” when Plasan made it abundantly clear that Vermont’s business climate had nothing to do with its decision, and Vermont couldn’t have done anything to change it. But let’s not let a little inconvenient truth get in the way of a stale talking point.

Former Wall Street supremo Bruce Lisman kept it simple; he made time for one self-congratulatory Tweet, with nary a word of sympathy for the workers.

(The link is to WCAX’s story about the Plasan closing.)

Nice, Bruce. Way to show your concern for the common folk.

Okay, so the Usual Suspects reacted in the usual way: grabbing at any available pretext for regurgitating their political cud. (Please chew with your mouths closed.) But there are lessons we can learn from the departure of Plasan and other industries, and things we should bear in mind.

FIrst, let’s re-examine the unique strengths of Vermont. We do have our share of weaknesses, even if you omit the tired bromides of rightist politicos. So why do so many businesses establish themselves here or move here? Why does anybody stay? Why don’t they all move to Michigan or Texas or Mississippi?

Quality of life must be near the top of the list. Our topflight public school system is a draw. We have some very nice cities and small towns, good places to call home. Low rates of violent crime. Abundant recreation. A market small enough that entrepreneurs can gain a foothold before venturing out into the big time. (Ben & Jerry’s would have had a much harder time starting out in a big state with big distribution systems.)

I’m sure there are others. My point is, before we try to tear down Vermont, let’s figure out what we’re good at, do what we can to make it even better, and market the hell out of it.

Okay, so now: what are our weaknesses?

We should certainly review the items on the VTGOP hit list. If there are ways to smooth regulatory pathways without selling our souls, great. If forms or bureaucratic procedures are cumbersome, simplify them. But there’s no way we can compete with bigger states or other countries on things like taxes and incentives. Vermont can’t come anywhere near the packages being offered by New York state, for instance. We can’t be as low-tax as Florida or as development-friendly as Arizona, nor would I want us to be. That’s why our first priority should be identifying and maximizing our strengths.

Beyond the usual GOP talking points, I see three major areas that are drawbacks for Vermont’s business climate. In no particular order:

The high cost of post-high school education. It’s the one thing we consistently hear from business owners (as opposed to their political mouthpieces): “We can’t find enough skilled workers. We can’t fill available jobs.”

The cost of attending our public colleges and universities is absurdly high — especially at the community college level. Governor Shumlin has done some incremental things to nibble away at this problem, but has failed to tackle it in a thorough, systemic way.

Getting around. When Chris Graff wrote his memoir a few years ago, he ranked the top stories in recent Vermont history. His pick for #1: the coming of the interstate freeways. They made it possible to travel and transport goods much more quickly, at least in certain corridors. They brought dramatic change to Vermont — mostly for the good.

But large stretches of Vermont are still remote — or remote enough that it’s a significant competitive disadvantage. The biggest obstacle for places like Bennington and Rutland is the lack of high-speed roadway. The best thing we could do for them is turn U.S. 7 into a freeway. We could also use speedier corridors across central and southern Vermont.

(We pause while liberal readers gasp for breath.)

Also, and just as significantly, we need more public transportation. This is a tough nut to crack in a place with a small, scattered population, but if it was easier to get around Vermont without a car, it’d help convince people to live somewhere besides Chittenden County.

The lack of housing, for purchase and rental. One of the biggest drags on our economy is the aging demographic. What do young families need? Rental properties and small- to mid-sized houses. Just what we don’t have.

This is one area of regulation that needs to be loosened in a targeted way. We need to do more to encourage affordable housing — by which I don’t just mean Section 8 or mobile homes, I mean houses costing less than $250,000 and enough rental stock to keep rents reasonable. I’d like to see an emphasis on in-fill housing in existing cities and towns. I don’t want to open the regulatory door to more suburban sprawl.

Housing affordability touches on a fundamental problem with our 21st Century economy: wage stagnation in the middle and working classes. Part of the problem with affordability is depressed wages, something that’s beyond the scope of this post. But as long as young people are starting their lives with college debt and low salaries, we need to help them find housing that fits their budgets.

So there you have it. My initial prescription for improving Vermont’s business climate. And it has nothing (much) to do with taxation or regulation.

About those rescissions, pt. 2: The poor will always be with you

It seems as though the Shumlin Administration’s cowardly pre-Thanksgiving newsdump was successful: our political media dutifully reported the topline — $17 million in cuts, including $6.7 million to be implemented without legislative approval.

But nobody, at least not yet, has reported any of the details. And there are some noteworthy details. Some entire agencies seem to be getting off scot-free, while others are taking it in the shorts.

Well, one in particular. And if you guessed “Agency of Human Services,” you’d be a cynical observer of Vermont politics.

And you’d be correct.

Human Services is expected to provide almost two-thirds of the total rescissions — more than $10 million.

It must be noted that Human Services is the single biggest agency, so it could be expected to take a hit. But it’s not anywhere near that big. This seems to be a rerun of past Administration efforts to cut human-services spending; I’m reminded in particular of its ill-fated effort to slash the Earned Income Tax Credit. This time, instead of calling for specific (and politically unpopular) cuts, the Administration is dumping the mess into AHS Interim Secretary Harry Chen’s lap.

Gee. Supposedly Shumlin thinks Chen is doing a bang-up job, and would love to have him stay in the post. This is a damn funny way of showing his appreciation.

Most other state agencies come in for some cuts, but nothing close to AHS scale. And there are a couple of agencies that seem to have avoided the budget ax altogether.

Number-one on that list is the Agency of Transportation. It’s one of the bigger state agencies, and it won’t be getting any smaller; it’s being held harmless.

At the same time, the Governor’s hit list gets awfully picayune in spots. The Vermont Humanities Council is being docked $9,000. The Lieutenant Governor’s office is getting nicked by $2,900. And the Vermont Symphony Orchestra is in line to lose $2,000.

I find it hard to believe that Human Services can slash $10 million but Transportation can’t spare a dime. I also find it hard to believe that a process so fine-grained that it could find two grand in savings from classical music couldn’t identify any cuts at all in concrete and asphalt.

My own budgetary chops are pretty limited, so I can’t assess each and every cut. These are a few highlights, obvious even to the untrained eye. It is to be hoped that someone in the media is taking a closer look at the rescission list. There’s definitely some funny stuff going on.

One final note. It’s been widely reported that there’s a potential conflict between Administration and Legislature over the former’s claim that it can cut $6.7 million without lawmakers’ approval. What hasn’t been reported is that the Administration wants the other cuts — the ones requiring legislative approval — to go into effect before the new session begins.

This seems like a pretty devious way to undermine the legislature’s budget-writing authority. It’s yet another potential flashpoint between the two branches of government. And yet another sign that the Governor has already stopped his post-election “listening and learning.” He’s back to taking pre-emptive action and trying to box the legislature into a corner.