VPR 2018 Murrow Awards Submission — Investigative Reporting
Law enforcement in Vermont issued more than 24,000 tickets worth upwards of $4 million in fines to drivers in 2017. One quarter were issued in three small towns. This investigation revealed how outdated and arbitrary speed limits enable taxpayers and sheriffs to profit from aggressive speed enforcement in Vermont.
Please consider reviewing our sources and methodology post, linked at the bottom of this post.
Mount Tabor, Vt.
- Population: 255
- Tickets issued: 1,292+
- Total issued in traffic ticket fines: $230,992+
- Total received in traffic ticket revenue: $131,074
- Revenue to town per resident: $524
- Amount spent on police department (FY17): $37,100
At 10 cents for every $100, Mount Tabor’s municipal tax rate is among the lowest in the state. Although the rate has always been low, today it is nearly one third what it was in 1999.
That’s the year the state’s transportation committee lowered the speed limit on Route 7 in Mount Tabor — against the recommendation of engineers at the Agency of Transportation.
Since then, a single police sergeant has issued over $2 million in traffic fines, mostly to speeding motorists. That money goes a long way in a town of 255.
WHAT HAPPENED IN 1999
In March 1999, Wendell Davidson Jr., chairman of the Selectboard for the town of Mount Tabor, requested either a stop light be installed, or the speed limit on Route 7 in Mount Tabor be reduced from 50 mph to 45 mph. “It is very difficult for disabled or blind people to get across this road,” he wrote to the Agency of Transportation.
An Agency of Transportation engineering study supported a speed limit of either 55 or 60 mph. Short of other factors, such as limited sight distance or high crash incidents, federal guidance and best practices recommend the speed limit be set at the current rate under which 85 percent of motorists drive. In Mount Tabor, the 85th percentile was 57 mph. Instead, agency engineers recommended the speed limit remain at 50 mph.
They presented their recommendation at a public meeting held by the Vermont Traffic Committee. The Committee consists of three members: the state’s secretary of the Agency of Transportation, commissioner of Department of Motor Vehicles and the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety.
According to the minutes, no resident of Mount Tabor was present at that June 1999 meeting. The town’s law enforcement officer was present: Wallingford resident Nelson Tift.
He mentioned that two residents with disabilities cross the street and that a reduced speed limit “would be easier to enforce and lower the speeding in this area.” The committee then voted to reduce the speed limit to 45 mph: at least 10 mph below what federal guidelines would have supported.
Sergeant Tift issued more than $230,992 in fines in 2017, reducing taxpayers’ burden by more than 25 percent.
Amy Gamble, traffic operations engineer with the Agency of Transportation, doesn't find the events in Mount Tabor surprising.
“In cases where the town or citizens choose not to attend the meeting, the traffic committee almost always will simply accept the traffic operations recommendation,” Gamble said. However, she said, when testimony is given, the committee will “very often set the speed limit in accordance to what the town has requested.”
The top two towns, Plymouth and Bridgewater, have a couple of things in common. They both contract the Windsor County Sheriff's Department for speed enforcement services, and that department issues nearly three times as many tickets as any other law enforcement agency in the state. In these towns, revenue from heavy speed enforcement completely offsets the cost of law enforcement for taxpayers. And it leads to thousands of dollars in profit for Windsor County Sheriff Michael Chamberlain.
Chamberlain is entitled to takes home 5 percent of the contract, per state law. Last year, that was roughly $10,000 for each of the two towns.
In at least one of the towns — Plymouth — Chamberlain's contract increased by 205 percent over five years.
And although Plymouth and Bridgewater are both on busy roads that ferry skiers to popular ski destinations, they only get about half as much traffic as highly traveled corridors like Route 100 near Stowe or Route 7 between Rutland and Burlington.
EXPLORE THE DATA: How much did your town earn from traffic tickets in 2017?
- Population: 619
- Tickets issued: 2,352+
- Total issued in traffic ticket fines: $415,620+
- Total received in traffic ticket revenue in 2017: $220,969
- Revenue to town per resident: $363
- Amount spent on general law enforcement duties by Windsor County's Sheriff's Department (FY17): $221,938
Plymouth, Vermont issued more than $415,620 in traffic ticket fines in 2017 — more than any other town in Vermont. Most tickets were issued in a 35-mile-per-hour zone on Route 100. The state last reviewed the speed limit there in 1973. Since then, a handful of institutions have closed.
“There’s no ski mountain, no school, no store anymore, and nobody walks on the road,” said Plymouth resident Erica Bizaoui.
"Well in Plymouth, I think everybody has gotten pulled over there." — Erica Bizaoui, Plymouth resident
According to Amy Gamble, a longtime traffic operations engineer with the Vermont Agency of Transportation, the state’s traffic committee rarely raises speed limits.
If the state were to do so, it would likely be at the request of town officials. But, Gamble said, “the idea of raising the speed limit in front of peoples’ houses would present a challenge from a local political perspective.”
Many in Plymouth appreciate the low speed limit.
“Vermont Route 100 has been neglected,” said Ralph Michael, chair of Plymouth’s select board.
He sees fast moving vehicles swerve to avoid potholes, and fears especially for bicyclists. The enforcement, Michael said, is designed to protect their lives.
"We actually have bicycle tours that go through there," Michael said. "You can’t even stay on the edge of the road with a car!"
- Population: 936
- Tickets issued: 2,381+
- Total issued in traffic ticket fines: $397,521+
- Total received in traffic ticket revenue in 2017: $199,987
- Revenue to town per resident: $215
- Amount spent on traffic enforcement by Windsor County's Sheriff's Department (FY17): $205,250
Although Plymouth receives more revenue from traffic tickets, deputies issued more tickets in Bridgewater than anywhere else in the state in 2017. The vast majority of those tickets were issued in a 25-mph zone one third of a mile long.
This was initially a “school zone,” meaning the 25-mph limit was only enforceable when kids were present or lights were flashing. But in 1983, Agency of Transportation records show, the statewide traffic committee decided to convert all existing school zones in villages and cities into full-time speed limits. That included Route 4 in Bridgewater.
Consequently, even though the Bridgewater Village School closed three years ago, the “school zone” speed limit stayed put.
Since 1983, more than 20 schools have closed across the state. Amy Gamble, traffic operations engineer for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, said when schools close, the state does not reassess the speed limit in the now permanent "school zones."
Windsor County Sheriff Michael Chamberlain supports the current 25-mph speed limit. “There are no sidewalks,” he said. “It wouldn’t take much for someone to go off and hit a child, or hit a family.”
The town of Bridgewater hires Chamberlain’s department to enforce the speed limit on Route 4 for 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
Town Constable Collen Doyle would like the to find other ways to slow speeding drivers in Bridgewater.
"When I go to bed there are blue lights, and when I wake up there are blue lights." — Bridgewater constable Collen Doyle
Doyle is 29 years old and moved back to Bridgewater from New York City a few years ago. “I often joke around and say ‘I’m on the mean streets of Bridgewater,’” he said.
Doyle worries Bridgewater’s reputation as a speed trap dissuades visitors from spending money in town. “It’s anti-advertising,” he said. “I really think it has hurt our economics.”
What About My Town? Explore The Data
Play around with the table below to learn about last year's traffic ticketing in other Vermont towns. You can type a specific town or city in the search field, as well as sort the different column data. Viewing on mobile? Tap HERE.
*Please note: the field labeled "Payments to Municipalities" is comprehensive, while the field labeled "Number of Tickets" omits a small subset of traffic violations issued under 23 VSA 1081. This can explain blank entries in the "number of tickets" field. See our methodology post for more information. (Updated 4/26/18).
- Revenue to Municipality: Department of Finance and Management, Town Payment Reports 2017
- Number of Tickets and Sum of Penalties: Judicial Bureau, Report of Collections - Town Detail For Period 01/01/2017 through 12/31/2017
- Population: U.S Census Bureau, 2010 Census
Thanks to Noah Villamarin-Cutter for his assistance scraping and presenting the data.
This report comes from VPR's investigative reporting desk. VPR is committed to investigative journalism as part of its mission of public service. Have a tip for the investigative reporting desk? Send an email to VPR reporter/editor Emily Corwin.