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Distracted driving
Bill would increase penalties for texting while driving

A bill introduced Tuesday in the Vermont House of Representatives would increase the penalties for texting while driving and other forms of distracted driving, and leave violators on the hook for $500 for a first offense.

After the bill was introduced, it was referred to the House Committee on Transportation.

Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Pittsford, co-sponsored the bill.

“I continue to see people in the street driving while using their cellphones, or actually texting, so my purpose is to keep the conversation open on this problem, which doesn’t appear to be going away by legislation. We need to figure this out, because we continue to hear from the folks at the Department of Public Safety about car crashes being caused by inattentive driving,” he said.

If the bill becomes law as written, the civil penalty for using a portable electronic device while driving would increase to $500 and five points on the offender’s driving record.

Currently, the penalty for a first violation is a minimum of $100 and a maximum of $200, while the penalties for subsequent violations is a minimum of $250 and a maximum of $500. Points against an offender’s license is not part of the current law unless under specific circumstances.

For instance, an offender would be assigned four points for a first violation and five points for second or greater convictions if the offender is using the handheld device in a marked work zone or school zone.

The bill proposes to add an additional three points under those circumstances, in addition to the standard five-point penalty.

The bill includes a specific section on texting while driving but those penalties are the same $500 fine and five points as using a handheld device, and include the enhanced points if the violation is in a work or school zone.

The proposed changes would also have an impact on those who are issued junior driver’s license. Someone younger than 18 who is texting or using a handheld device while driving would not be fined but would receive five points on his or her record.

“A learner’s permit or junior operator’s license shall contain an admonition that it is recallable and that the later procurement of an operator’s license is conditional on the establishment of a record which is satisfactory to the commissioner and showing compliance with the motor-vehicle laws of this and other states,” the bill said.

The bill proposes a minor would lose his or her learner’s permit for 30 days for getting three points and 90 days for getting six points.

Shaw said he supported the bill because it would create “serious penalties” for people who use handheld devices while driving.

“In my opinion, we need to get a hold of this problem and keep people from getting hurt while they’re driving because they’re not paying attention,” he said.

Shaw said the sections of the bill affecting junior driver’s licenses were important because they would get young Vermonters into the habit of avoiding distracted driving. He used the example of seat belts, which he said most young people accepted as part of driving.

Calls left for several legislators who sponsored or co-sponsored the bill were not returned on Friday.

Texting while driving has been illegal in Vermont since 2010, after then-Gov. James Douglas signed a bill at Montpelier High School.

During the signing event, students were asked to drive a golf cart through a course lined with traffic cones. The students went through the course once and then drove the course again while texting.

One legislator was asked to try the same exercise because of his background.

Then-Sen. Phil Scott, a Washington County Republican, was asked to participate because of his experience as a professional race car driver.

Scott, now Vermont’s governor, said he did awful while driving the course.

“I don’t see this measure as punitive as much as educational. I believe that once people are aware of how much of a problem this is, they stop,” Scott said in 2010.

patrick.mcardle @rutlandherald.com


jebcas / Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo  

drama club reprise

The cast of the revived Main Street Middle School Drama Club poses for a photo Friday during a dress rehearsal for their first production. See gallery, Page A6.


Local
AOT greasing the wheels for move to Barre

BARRE — Fueled by funding from the state Agency of Transportation, a new commuter bus could soon roll between Barre and Burlington on weekdays.

It’s all part of AOT’s looming move to Barre City Place, where some of its offices are now located, but many more are on the way.

Before it’s over, Mayor Lucas Herring said, AOT plans to have 385 employees working out of the four-story brick building that overlooks Depot Square.

Herring said AOT will fill the space currently occupied by the state Agency of Education, as well as the first-floor storefront recently vacated by Positive Pie.

“They’re taking more of the building,” he said of the state. “That’s a good thing.”

City Manager Steve Mackenzie agreed, noting that according to AOT’s projections, there will be net increase of 97 state jobs at Barre City Place as a result of the reshuffling. Some of those employees are already working out of the building, and Mackenzie said the bulk are expected to arrive in phases over the next 6 months.

Mackenzie said parking was a key hurdle, but the city has identified spaces to accommodate the influx of AOT employees.

Herring described it as a “tight fit” from a parking perspective, but it’s one he said likely would have been impossible without a proposal that is expected to provide some AOT employees with a convenient ride to and from work.

Enter Green Mountain Transit, which, thanks to funding from AOT, is poised to launch one new service and modify another in order to accommodate employees interested in commuting to work.

Jon Moore, GMT’s director of transportation, hosted a public hearing this week on the contemplated changes — including the proposed launch of the Barre LINK Express — at National Life in Montpelier.

Moore said the LINK bus would travel from Burlington to Barre and back twice a day on weekdays. Along the way it would stop in Richmond and Waterbury, he said.

Moore said demand for expanded commuter service to Barre is reflected in GMT’s Nextgen Study, and is consistent with earlier planning initiatives.

Though it will be paid for by AOT as part of a 3-year pilot project, Moore said the proposed service expansion comes at an awkward time for the GMT board, which is actively looking at cost-cutting measures due to budget constraints that will affect some existing services.

Still, Moore said he expects the GMT board will approve the Barre LINK and a Barre-related adjustment to the Route 2 commuter that currently runs from St. Johnsbury to Montpelier, with stops in West Danville, Marshfield, Plainfield and East Montpelier.

“I don’t anticipate a problem,” he said of a vote that will occur during the board’s Tuesday morning meeting.

Assuming the board approves the proposal, the new service would start March 25.

The timing of the state Agency of Education’s move from Barre City Place and AOT’s arrival are less clear.

Though education agency officials know they will be moving to the National Life complex in Montpelier, they don’t yet know precisely when. It won’t be earlier than March 1, which means the third and fourth floors at Barre City Place will be occupied until then.

AOT already occupies the second floor of the Barre building and it is unclear how swiftly it would move into offices on the third and fourth floors, or the first floor space previously occupied by Positive Pie.

Mackenzie said it wouldn’t happen overnight, and his understanding was it would be a months-long transition that should be largely completed by the end of the summer.

david.delcore @timesargus.com


AP
Democratic group marks $30M for voting rights

WASHINGTON — With the 2020 presidential election on the horizon, one of the largest outside Democratic groups announced on Thursday a $30 million effort to register voters, push ballot measures that expand voter rights and fight Republican-backed laws in court that restrict ballot access.

“At every stage of the game, Republican and conservative state legislatures around the country, when they are given the opportunity, make it more difficult for people to vote,” Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, told The Associated Press. “Essentially what you have are the descendants of Jim Crow who are trying to make it difficult for people to reach the ballot box.”

Democrats have historically supported expanded voting rights, which helps turn out their base, while Republicans have enacted ballot restrictions, citing concern about widespread voter fraud without offering proof. But the new two-year effort, which will spend roughly triple what Priorities had devoted to a similar initiative during the last election cycle, comes as an increasingly diverse Democratic Party has upped the intensity of its focus on ballot access.

Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost a recent bid to become the nation’s first black female governor, delivered a rebuttal to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday that singled out Republican efforts to limit voter participation.

“Let’s be clear: Voter suppression is real,” she said.

The launch of Priorities’ effort also coincides with debate in Congress over a sweeping reform of campaign finance and voting rights laws. The legislation, called H.R. 1, is widely supported by the new Democratic House majority but was criticized by GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a “power grab” because it would make Election Day a holiday.

Much of the money Priorities plans to spend will be directed toward litigation, Cecil said. It’s an area where they had considerable success in the run-up to last fall’s midterms, blunting the impact of election laws in Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Florida and New Hampshire.

For example, a Missouri judge last year blocked portions of a law from taking effect that would have required voters to present a valid photo ID or sign a sworn statement and present some other form of identification to cast a regular ballot.

In Iowa, a Priorities lawsuit resulted in a court order that said the state cannot throw out an absentee ballot based on a judgment by local election officials that the voter’s signature doesn’t match one on file.

And in Indiana, the threat of legal action stymied local officials from acting on a Republican-approved state law reducing the number of polling locations during the 2018 election in one of the state’s largest minority-population counties, the group said.

Now Priorities is turning its attention to Georgia and Texas, states that have both drawn recent scrutiny over claims of voter fraud.

In Abrams’ home state of Georgia, she accused her rival in the governor’s race, Brian Kemp, of using his last post as secretary of state to make it harder for people, particularly minorities and the poor, to cast ballots. Kemp, who won the race, denied any wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, in Texas, the state’s chief election official recently backpedaled after releasing an unverified report that questioned the citizenship of tens of thousands of registered voters.

“We will look at where is the biggest harm being done and where our work can have the most impact,” Cecil said.


Local
L&M Diner demolition denied a second time

BARRE — A local developer’s renewed bid to raze the Depression-era diner he purchased at auction last summer has again been denied by the Development Review Board.

Following a brief deliberative session Thursday night, the board voted, 6-2, to deny Mark Nicholson’s latest request to demolish the fire-damaged diner. He bought the diner at auction for $25,000 in July and sought permission to tear it down 3 months later.

The board rejected Nicholson’s earlier request, 5-3, concluding last October it met neither of the criteria for razing a structure in the city’s downtown historic district.

Nicholson recently submitted an essentially identical request — one that contemplated the demolition of a diner that was closed for good following a mid-March fire replacing it with a narrow crushed stone lot that would be fenced on both ends.

Confronted with the same plan, board members arrived at the same conclusion.

Though the decision hasn’t yet been reduced to writing, the board was unable to conclude that the structure that last housed the L&M Diner was “a deterrent to a major improvement that will be a clear and substantial benefit” to the city.

Nicholson has no plan to reopen the restaurant or re-purpose the structure, which has been a fixture in downtown Barre since the Green Mountain Diner opened in the converted rail car in 1932. Board member Katrina Pelkey wondered whether the vacant building was preferable to a vacant lot.

“You’re establishing a void there, and nature and humans don’t like voids,” Pelkey said, expressing concern the fenced-in lot would become an “attractive nuisance.”

Nicholson argued the fire-damaged diner already is.

“If you like what’s there now, vote ‘no’ on this project,” he replied.

Nicholson, who owns buildings on both sides of the diner, described its demolition as an interim step to stabilize the property while he evaluates his options.

“We’re trying to clean this up and make it more presentable,” he said. “I’m sorry if it’s too straightforward, but I don’t know how to glorify a burned out building.”

Nicholson said it is possible the proposed lot could be used as outdoor seating space by one of his current tenants — Espresso Bueno — or some future tenant. It is also possible the lot could accommodate the expansion of one of the buildings on either side of it, or a major redevelopment project.

However, Nicholson said none of those options are imminent.

“I wish I was here saying I was going to build a 3-story building with high-end residential on the upper floors,” he said.

In a downtown with an abundance of vacant space — including well over 10,000 square feet in buildings he owns — Nicholson said a vacant diner, which changed hands and names several times since 2001, wouldn’t be missed.

“If you think it’s easy to own property and rent it in Barre, I’ve got news for you,” he said.

The board was unable to find demolition of the diner as needed to pave the way for a project that would benefit the city, and concluded Nicholson failed to demonstrate retaining the structure he knowingly purchased in its current condition would cause him an “undue financial hardship.”

Nicholson provided the board with estimates that suggested renovating the structure would cost more than $47,000, not including the cost of replacing kitchen equipment if it were once again going to be used as a diner.

The board struggled with the same issue with respect to the demolition of the North Main Street building that was once the decades-long home of Dunkin’ Donuts. Members rejected an initial proposal to raze that building and only relented after being presented with a refined plan to convert the property into a landscaped parking lot for the neighboring Northfield Savings Bank. That building has since been demolished and the parking lot project is expected to be completed this year.

Though Thursday’s decision wasn’t unanimous, it reflected the board’s reluctance to permit the demolition of downtown structures absent a clear plan with some discernible upside for the city. Replacing vacant buildings with vacant lots doesn’t pass that test in the board’s view and some members worry approving an application that essentially does that would set a dangerous precedent.

The board’s longest serving member — Richard Deep — and one of its newest additions — Jessica Egerton — cast the two dissenting votes.

david.delcore @timesargus.com


Local rail

New look

The Vermont Principals’ Association will use a new format this year to determine if certain girls hockey teams will compete in Division I or Division II for playoffs. B1


Peter Cobb Photo 

Scott Davidson, chief inspector for the Department of Motor Vehicles, poses for a photo in his Montpelier office.


jebcas / Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff File Photo  

Juan Darias, of Sudbury, Mass., leads a trio of skiers skinning up a trail before the lifts open at Mad River Glen in Fayston.


Robert Layman / Staff Photo/  

A cannabis plant in Brandon.