This blog chronicles and analyzes developments in the Upper Delaware Valley, with an emphasis on public affairs, politics and what people are doing to make this a better place. You can find news here as well as commentary - but don't expect neutrality. The award-winning editorial writer for The River Reporter from 2004 to 2012, I am an advocate for sustainability, self-sufficient economic growth vs. globalization and protecting the environment on which our health, prosperity and quality of life depend.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Perhaps more comfort needed on the road use law

HORTONVILLE, NY — Comments on the Multi-Municipal Task Force (MMTF) road preservation law at the Town of Delaware’s public meeting last night agreed almost universally that in principle, the law is a great idea and should be passed. But speakers also voiced serious concerns about the way the law handles certain specific issues, and noted that it has not been well explained to the public. The preference therefore was to have a vote on the law be delayed, and it was also suggested that a workshop or workshops be arranged during which the points of contention could be discussed.

 I’ve written strongly in support of this law here and elsewhere, and obviously agree with the first point. But I also understand some of the concerns voiced about the law, which, to the extent that it interacts with complex and lengthy program and technical manuals that appear not to have been posted online, is not all that easily understood. I therefore agree that some delay might be in order, along with some effort at public education on points of concern.

The three main areas of concern raised last night were the difficulty and possible expense of administering the law; the potential difficulties of enforcing the law; and a query as to whether the law may wind up affecting small businesses like home builders instead of just the larger firms like Millenium Pipeline that it is intended to capture.

With regard to the administration issue, at last night’s meeting, town superintendent Ed Sykes said they had filled out some sample paperwork at a workshop that had been held for MMTF members and it didn’t seem that bad to him. I simply don’t have the knowledge base to evaluate what the potential problems might be here, but a further discussion of how much additional work is involved, the degree to which it might prove necessary to increase payroll expenses, and the extent to which the money put up by road use applicants will be adequate to cover any additional personnel might be appropriate if workshops were indeed to be held.

 I believe the concerns about enforcement were greatly overblown, partly because there seemed to be a misunderstanding of what it is that actually needs to be enforced. People were talking as though the issue was identifying individual trucks as either adhering or not adhering to weight and size restrictions, as one has to do when roads are posted with weight limits. But in fact the whole genius of this law, as opposed to posting, is that it makes no effort to restrict individual trucks by size. It measures the overall road damage created by an industrial project, and charges to repair all that damage, regardless of how many trucks caused it or what size they are. As much damage as is done, that’s how much the company will have to pay. The company has to put up a bond ahead of time to cover repairs, and if it turns out after the job that more damage has been done than the size of the bond, it will also have to pay that.

Enforcement to this extent only requires measurements at two points in time: once before the job begins, and once afterwards. It’s not as though you have to have a lot of people out on the roads spotting individual trucks and making sure they are not too big. To be sure, some enforcement would be required in a couple of areas. First, the law calls for companies to stick to only certain routes. There is a possibility they will use routes that have not been approved, and some kind of oversight system would be needed for that. Second, there is presumably the possibility that someone will commence a project without filing an application in the first place. I think these are fairly limited and probably manageable problems. But again, there would be no harm at all in holding some workshops to explain this kind of thing to the public.

With regard to the question whether small construction firms could be caught in the law’s net, I can understand why somebody in the construction business might find the language of the law itself vague, with phrases like “unusually heavy traffic” and “above-normal wear and tear” to describe the activity for which businesses will need to pay for road repairs. However, I believe that the specificity of the law lies not in its internal definitions, but in its interaction with the program and technical manuals, as contained in Section 5 B: " The Town Highway Superintendent shall review such application and worksheet in accordance with the Program Manual and the Technical Manual. Within no more than thirty (30) days after receipt of a complete haul route application and project traffic worksheet, the Town Highway Superintendent shall notify the applicant whether the use of Town Highways will result in Concentrated Traffic."

Obviously, the key thing here is whether the methodology of those manuals succeeds in screening out small businesses. But that’s not possible to tell for sure without access to those manuals, and an explanation of the methodology. Here again, it seems to me that it is quite legitimate for concerned businessmen to want to sit down and be shown exactly how the methodology works, perhaps filling out sample applications with numbers that would be typical for the jobs they do, and seeing what results would emerge using the manuals' procedures.

Like last night’s speakers, I think that the MMTF road use law is important to have in place regardless of whether fracking activity—the prospect of which provided the incentive for developing this law—ever comes to the county. But also like them, I think it is reasonable to ask for a small delay while the law is better explained to those members of the public who are concerned, and amend it as necessary to iron out any snarls that are discovered, and would recommend a workshop or workshops during which this could be done.

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