By Brett Yates
Pittsfield has won a grant from the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) that could help pay for a new storage shed for winter road sand, but the grant wasn’t for as much as hoped for.
If the Pittsfield Select Board chooses to accept the grant, the state will hand over $56,000 of federal funds through its Municipal Highway and Stormwater Mitigation Program. The town, however, had applied for $82,645 earlier this fall. At its Nov. 4 meeting, the board decided that it needed more time for consideration before taking on the funding and moving forward with the long-delayed project in spite of the shortfall.
After an engineer declared Pittsfield’s sand shed unsafe in 2007, a contractor estimated that a full repair of the structure would cost about $100,000, according to town officials. Starting in 2016, over the course of three town meetings, Pittsfield eventually reserved $104,000 in municipal taxes to pay for the job, but after sending out a request for proposals in the spring of 2018, discovered that the real cost of the work, by that point, would come to roughly $200,000. This led the Select Board to pursue the construction of an altogether new shed — an even costlier project, but one for which VTrans would cover the bulk of the bill.
By some accounts, the state’s involvement has turned out to be a mixed blessing.
In the fall of 2018, a VTrans grant sent $281,000 of federal funds to Pittsfield for the new sand shed. The following year, Pittsfield hired the Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Commission as the municipal project manager and then contracted the consultants Dubois & King for engineering work. In the autumn of 2020, Dubois & King projected a total cost of $431,000, which prompted Pittsfield to apply for the second VTrans grant.
If the town accepts the additional $56,000, it will likely aim to pair the funds with a third VTrans grant, this time from the agency’s Transportation Alternatives program, but it won’t find out the result of that application until next year. In the meantime, Pittsfield won’t know for sure how much it can afford to spend on the project, for which it hopes to solicit bids from construction firms in January, or whether it’ll have to go back to the municipal taxpayers for extra funds at town meeting.
Rising prices this year have also cast last year’s estimate into doubt. “The state of construction has changed dramatically,” Select Board member Ann Kuendig observed.
Select Board member Joyce Stevens wished the town had settled for a simpler alternative to the pricey concrete edifice now planned, such as a plastic-roofed, semi-temporary structure. Many towns in Vermont have no sand shed at all, maintaining an outdoor pile instead.
“None of these other towns have a sand shed, but we’re spending almost half a million dollars to cover the sand,” Stevens complained. “Everybody else figures out how to do it.”
In her view, the project snowballed when the town accepted the first VTrans grant, which entailed submitting to the state’s complex guidelines for environmental review, design and procurement. This has left her wary of taking on a second grant.
“Do we need a new engineer? Are they going to send out a new guy to check the flood zone again?” Stevens wondered. “I don’t want to accept a grant that we’re going to have to spend $20,000 dollars of to jump through hoops like we did with the other grant, where we wouldn’t have to do any of this stuff if we just did it on our own, in our town with no zoning.”
Abandoning the project now, however, would mean repaying funds already spent. “I’m not sure we can start all over again,” Kuendig said.
Still, Kuendig vowed to research “any additional stipulations” before bringing the second grant to a vote.