VTrans continues monitoring border traffic

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POWNAL — After four weeks of monitoring cross-border traffic to determine how many out-of-state vehicles are coming into Vermont, the state has begun to scale back its efforts as it prepares for a reopening of Vermont's economy.

The monitoring began April 1, when Agency of Transportation employees conducting the count staffed 38 high-priority border crossings. As of Tuesday, there are 30 monitored border crossings with Canada, New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts.

By having VTrans workers count the number of Vermont and out-of-state license plates crossing the state's borders, the state has created a baseline that can be used in determining the effect of further anti-COVID-19 measures, Gov. Phil Scott said at a press conference Monday.

A "number of people" had been complaining that the state was being flooded with people traveling in from outside the state, he said.

"We wanted to find out if that was indeed true," he said. "So we have developed that baseline. We want to continue to monitor."

Since April 1, there have been 779,219 out-of-state license plates and 802,023 Vermont license plates counted at border crossings, according to VTrans' COVID-19 transportation dashboards.

At the Massachusetts/Vermont border crossing on Route 7, 44,824 out-of-state plates and 33,888 Vermont plates have been counted since April 1.

Traffic volume statewide is down significantly — almost 54 percent in comparing April 27, 2020 to the same day in 2019, according to VTrans data.

Even though the counting effort has been scaled back, it's still important to keep tabs on the data, Scott said.

"But we still want to pay attention, especially as the weather gets better," he said. "And we're seeing, again, as we open up some of our opportunities in Vermont, we want to make sure we're paying attention, and bringing all that information together to figure out what we should do next, and what was the effect of what we did."

For example, he said, if the state decided to open up campgrounds, officials might want to know how many people are coming from other states with campers.

"And to see, again, what an impact that might have on the number of [COVID-19 cases] we're seeing," Scott said. "Again, it's just information. We still think it's viable, and something that would be beneficial in making decisions about how we open up this economy."

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VTrans workers are not recording license plate numbers, only states of registration, Amy Tatko, public outreach manager at VTrans, said in an email.

On Tuesday afternoon, one of those workers, Bonnie Davis, sat in an orange VTrans truck on the shoulder of Route 7 in Pownal, just north of the Massachusetts state line.

Sitting behind the wheel, clipboard in hand, she recorded the number of cars from Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, New Jersey and other states with hashmarks on a grid. She said she's been doing this since the start on April 1.

"As warmer weather gets here, we get more cars," she said.

Workers used to monitor traffic 24 hours a day, in 12-hour shifts. Now, she said, they're down to 7-hour shifts.

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The effort has attracted some attention, she said.

"We've had a couple [people] literally stop and say, `if we come over the line, are we allowed back?'" she said. "We haven't roadblocked anything."

"[There's] literally not enough people or trucks to block off all the roads in the state of Vermont," she added.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said he hasn't gotten any feedback on this effort in the last few weeks — but he had received complaints from people who live in area ski towns who were concerned about the number of people coming to Vermont from out of state, with the possible risk of spreading COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Sears said that concern has "kind of died down."

But, he said, he gets complaints almost every weekend about out-of-state cars on Route 9.

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"It's pretty self-explanatory why those trucks are there," said Rep. Chris Bates, D-Bennington, of the traffic monitoring. He said his constituents have not really voiced concerns about the program.

Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, also said she had not had any concerns come to her about the monitoring program, or about people coming into Vermont from other states.

Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, said she's heard from a "handful" of residents about traffic monitoring — and they don't like it.

"They think it's intimidating and doesn't send a welcoming message," she said in an email. "Some are also skeptical about the reason for the [program]. One said to me, `This doesn't look like counting cars to me.'"

Balint added that she's not suggesting anything nefarious is going on, just "some of my constituents just don't like how it looks."

Scott has begun to take actions to open up the state's economy in light of COVID-19 continuing to trend in a better-than-expected direction in Vermont.

At Monday's press conference, Scott said he is very concerned about the high COVID-19 case numbers in neighboring Massachusetts.

"It gives me great concern," he said. "I want to make sure that we protect Vermonters, and do all we can to make sure that we're not taking steps that would put them at risk."

Scott previously imposed 14 days of self-isolation for those traveling into the state for anything other than an essential purpose, and that remains in effect, he said.

The governor acknowledged then that the order does not provide for any specific enforcement of travel restrictions, saying that "we're not going to be able to enforce our way through this."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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