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December 09, 2016
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Taking care of the roads

Sullivan County’s Multi-Municipal Taskforce (MMTF) was formed in 2008 to create a legal framework that will allow towns to ensure that road damage caused by high-traffic activities is paid for by the companies that do the damage—not the taxpayer. Its efforts are now coming close to fruition: on Monday, May 16, copies of the draft GEIS, technical manuals and template laws for the system devised by the legal firm of Whiteman, Osterman, and Hanna and Delta Engineers were mailed to the member towns (Bethel, Callicoon, Cochecton, Delaware, Highland, Lumberland, Rockland and Tusten). The next step is for each individual town board to approve the documents, and make them available to the public. A public hearing will then be held, with the target date being sometime during the week of June 27 to 30. At a taskforce meeting held on May 12, the hope was voiced that there will be a final vote on the laws (each town will hold a separate vote on an identical law) sometime in August.

The project undertaken by the taskforce is stunning in its scope, including not only the environmental considerations of the GEIS, but engineering studies regarding the road capacities in each member town, traffic counts, training of personnel, map creation, the drafting of template laws and more. Some of the work was done by the firms retained by the taskforce; the rest of it has been the responsibility of the member municipalities, who appear to have risen to the occasion admirably.

Most importantly, the manuals and template laws delivered to the taskforce spell out in specific detail the steps and procedures the towns must undertake in order to identify those road users who should be liable for repairs if the roads suffer undue damage, and to draw up effective bonding agreements with them. Probably the biggest stumbling block to devising such a system was to come up with a screening system that distinguishes traffic that is really causing excessive damage to roads—for example, trucks associated with major new industrial projects like the Millennium Pipeline or natural gas drilling—from traditional traffic by equally heavy vehicles like milk trucks, lumber trucks and local construction vehicles. Essential to the existing economy and already factored into existing highway budgets, most of these belong to small local businesses that wouldn’t be able to afford the bonds. The MMTF finds a way to protect this traffic using a screen that combines measures of weight and frequency.

To see how important such a screening system is, we need only look to Pennsylvania, which is already experiencing the adverse affects of a purely weight-based solution imposed by the state on the roads it owns in Wayne County. Howls of protest are being heard from local businessmen who can’t afford to post bonds and, therefore, have to take the long way around to get to where they need to go. One example that came up at a recent meeting of the Wayne Conservation District was the owner of a quarry in Prompton, whose trucks can no longer drive the straight five-mile route from his shop to his quarry. Instead, trucks have to go all the way down to Honesdale and drive back up, a distance of over 15 miles.

In contrast, the MMTF solution is based on thresholds that are determined by a combination of weight and number of trips. As part of the initial setup process, existing traffic levels have been measured and will be used as a baseline for acceptable levels going forward. The new bonding system will be triggered whenever any entity proposes a new “development” (the technical term used in the documents), that is, any construction, commercial or industrial activity that will need to be served by additional road traffic. The already existing systems of permitting for projects in the area—whether by the towns themselves, as in special exception permits; the Department of Environmental Conservation; water withdrawal permits by the Delaware River Basin Commission; or permits from any other regulatory source—will, in effect, serve as the alert system to notify the towns that they should confer with the party in question to ascertain the expected traffic, see if bonding is warranted and strike any necessary agreement.

Without having yet seen the details, it sounds to us like the general approach is smart and workable. After the mud fights in Shohola, the Town of Delaware’s recent (hopefully temporary) abdication of its own home rule rights and the Town of Callicoon’s reluctance to allow its own citizens in on its comprehensive planning process, it’s nice to see an example of local government that makes us proud. The towns should soon be making the MMTF documents available to the public, and we suggest that you have a look at them, attend the public hearing (we’ll publish the date as soon as it’s announced) and be a part of this truly effective self-governance.