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How much culvert is too much culvert?

Townshend, FEMA at odds over repair costs

With additional reporting from News Editor Randolph T. Holhut.

TOWNSHEND—The Townshend Selectboard held a ribbon-cutting ceremony March 31 to celebrate the reopening of Townshend Dam Road. But the celebration was dampened by the possibility that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) won’t reimburse the town for 75 percent of the $550,000 cost of construction.

The road had been closed since last August, when flooding from Tropical Storm Irene washed out a culvert and cut off access between Route 30 and State Forest and West Hill roads.

The town had been told by FEMA that it would be reimbursed for 75 percent of the construction costs. However, in an email sent to Townshend Road Foreman Kurt Bostrom on March 28, FEMA Project Specialist Gregory Morley wrote that the agency cannot reimburse the town under its Public Assistance Program because the town upgraded the culvert from the previously existing corrugated metal pipe culvert to a concrete, open-bottom arched box culvert.

Morley wrote that FEMA is working with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources’ (ANR) bridge and culvert permitting program. He wrote that a project that upgrades infrastructure must meet certain criteria to be eligible for FEMA reimbursement. The money must be applied to the repair being performed, and the repair must be appropriate to the pre-disaster use. Morley’s note states that only upgrades “adopted and implemented” before a federal disaster declaration would be eligible for the 75 percent reimbursement.

The Townshend project met all the requirements except for one, according to Morley. Because the ANR permitting process is discretionary and not uniformly applied, “our reimbursement will be limited to the least cost structure type that will meet the requirements.”

Morley wrote that the town must “request approval for an ‘improved project’ at this site” from the Vermont Agency of Transportation, and once “the actual costs incurred as well as the costs that are deemed eligible for reimbursement” are identified, the town “will be reimbursed for the federal cost share (75 percent) of the eligible costs.”

Selectboard Chair Hedy Harris said there is a significant difference between the cost of simple replacement of what the flood washed away, and the cost of replacing what was lost with something that the town believes is a good deal better and is built to last.

While the town is figuring out how to get a bigger share of FEMA money for the new culvert, Harris said there is a general sense of relief from the 50 residents on the other side of Fair Brook who no longer have to drive five miles out of their way over a rough dirt road to get to Route 30, and that emergency vehicles can get to State Forest and West Hill roads more quickly.

Harris said the town is still trying to calculate the total cost of storm damage done to other roads, especially East Hill and Ellen Ware roads, which also saw several culverts wash out.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #147 (Wednesday, April 11, 2012).

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