SAINT-SEBASTIAN — On Friday afternoon, two members of the media, Agency of Transportation Secretary and former St. Albans City Manager Brian Searles, Gov. Peter Shumlin, his constituent correspondent, Geoff Green, and a driver all piled into a black SUV.
The destination was Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec to celebrate with Quebec’s Premier, Phillipe Couillard, the opening of the first two of four segments of the new Autoroute 35.
The highway, scheduled for completion in four to five years, will eventually create a direct connection between Montreal and Interstate 89 in Vermont.
On the road
Shumlin and Searles shared background on Autoroute 35 (A35). The highway construction project began in January 2009, and since Shumlin took office in 2010 for the first of his two terms, he said he has been in close touch with Quebec’s leaders on the project, knowing that its completion will increase even more commerce between the two trading partners.
“We have 1.1 million tourists at this crossing [each year] right now,” said Shumlin in between phone calls and texts. Turning around in his seat, he explained that Canadians make up 18 to 20 percent of Vermont’s tourism, a significant part of the state’s economy.
“Quebec is Vermont’s biggest trading partner. This is a huge opportunity for us,” Shumlin said.
Though the original completion time for A35 was originally projected to be in 2017, Quebec’s officials projected 2018 or 2019 would be the more likely date. For now, the first two northern segments – 47 kilometers – of the four-part project are done, allowing drivers to travel from Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Saint-Sebastian on a four-lane road. The cost so far has been $200 million.
Searles said someone from Shumlin’s office drove the open segments of A35 last week on a trip from Montreal to Montpelier, and found the trip was 20 minutes shorter than usual.
The second two southern segments – 17 kilometers – will run between Saint-Sebastian and Saint-Armand, replacing Route 133, a two-lane, twisty road that currently brings heavy U.S.-Canadian traffic through various small towns and villages. When the entire new highway is open, more driving time is expected to be cut, and safety of both drivers and communities should increase.
“St. Albans is already pretty accessible to Montreal, but when this is finished,” said Searles, “it’s going to be pretty amazing.”
When asked about increased staffing at the international border Port of Entry crossing in Highgate and the possibility of Amtrak trains running to Montreal once again, Shumlin and Searles said they hoped both things, while out of their control, would happen.
“Our [goal] is to make sure we upgrade staffing,” said Shumlin, “so we don’t have people standing in line. We’re going to have to be prepared for increased travel crossings.”
He added that Vermont’s congressional delegation is “all over this.”
As for Amtrak, Searles said things have been held up in Montreal in the past, but with luck, should move forward.
Throughout the conversation, Shumlin praised Quebec’s current premier for working with Vermont. “I developed a very close partnership with him – we’re very luck to have a premier who cares about Vermont,” Shumlin said. “I’m incredibly encouraged by his smarts, his commitments to efficiency and getting things done.”
In a diner
After a quick and painless handing over of passports at the Canadian border and switch off between drivers, Shumlin wanted to stop and eat. While the Gov. was insisted on stopping at the first place the car passed – an unexciting-looking place called Chez Pépé – the accompanying Canadian policeman asked Shumlin if he was sure that’s where he wanted to eat.
“C’mon,” Shumlin replied, “It doesn’t get any better than Chez Pépé.”
“We’re Vermonters,” he added.
Over a meal of soup and a burger, the Gov. allowed this reporter to pelt him with questions. Shumlin offered measured, big-picture, official-sounding responses, sometimes pausing to get the wording right, in between bites.
When asked about next steps for ensuring better water quality in Lake Champlain and other watersheds in the state, Shumlin explained his strategy. “You’ve got to be really careful not to divide the community,” he said. “Who’s for dirty water?”
“There’s growing impatience as algae blooms intensify,” Shumlin added.
Shumlin said that he wants to see local, state and federal efforts to come together, communicate and fix the water quality issue. “Vermont governors haven’t employed federal government partners – it’s time that we do,” he said. Shumlin laid out his lake cleanup funding proposal in three parts: federal funds, private section funds, and “an affordable way for Vermonters to make a contribution.”
He added that he wants to see that money go towards specific problem areas in the state. “I’m more interested in big gains,” said Shumlin. “This is how we’ll spend the dollars to get targeted results.”
On the top issues of this year’s election – healthcare and property taxes – the governor addressed them together.
“I think Vermonters understand that these are two things in their lives – these are two big items that are sucking money out of their wallets – property taxes, and healthcare,” Shumlin said. “They’re related. We have a spending problem [on] education and healthcare.”
When asked if he had a single approach for either issue, Shumlin declined to specify. “When you have a problem as big as this, you have to use every approach that works,” he said. He added no one top-down approach would be the solution for these issues.
Shumlin did say what he’s said in previous interviews with the media – that his Agency of Education Secretary Rebecca Holcomb will meet with individual school officials to find ways to cut education spending, and that he’s trying to get the single-payer system right before revealing a financing plan.
“My view is that the math in healthcare in Vermont is frightening,” said Shumlin. “I wish I had a plan to hide – we’re developing a plan.” He did reveal that his administration is currently hiring top-notch economists to help with determining an affordable healthcare financing plan by January.
“We’re hiring the best people in the country to help with the plan,” said Shumlin. “We’ve got to get it right.”
When asked about where he feels the opiate addiction issue is at in Vermont, the topic the governor devoted his entire State of the State address to last winter that has been absent so far in recent candidate discussions, Shumlin said progress has been made, and there is plenty more to do.
“I’m really proud of Vermonters for pulling together as a community,” he said. Shumlin pointed out that between January and October, the number of people in treatment across the state has almost doubled.
Encouraging more volunteerism was one of his main suggestions as for how to continue forward.
“We’re making real progress, but this is a tough battle that is going to take time,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to work – engaging communities that aren’t active that have not organized to do the prevention.”
After finishing lunch and telling those around that he didn’t eat the traditional Canadian meal of poutine to avoid “governor’s gut,” Shumlin got back into the car to head to the main event: a press conference on A35.
At a press conference
Once at the Saint-Sebastien Community Center, Shumlin donned his suit coat and mingled with Quebec’s top people. He shook plenty of hands and said “good to see you” to many strangers that came his way, and in the community center, did his part by speaking to the good relationship Vermont and Quebec share.
“It’s election time, and smart candidates don’t leave home. But for Vermont, Quebec is home,” Shumlin said to applause. “It’s the only place I’d go to outside of our border.”
After outlining the benefits of the new highway, Shumlin added, “We’re in this together. Today we celebrate the bond that pulls us closer together. Vermonters are proud and excited about this development.”
In addition to praising international relations and A35, Shumlin and Couillard also spoke of the collaborative effort to create an electric car corridor from Montreal to Burlington – where 31 charging stations were are now 59, allowing electric car drivers to have peace of mind as they travel long distances with plenty of places to stop and recharge.
After cutting the ceremonial ribbon on the new section of highway, it was time to head home. When asked a joking question about his favorite thing to visit in Canada, Shumlin, ever the politician, answered wisely.
“The outdoor food markets – can’t beat them,” he said. “Unless you go to Vermont food markets.”
He may keep his distance through minced words and politically savvy actions, but Shumlin isn’t afraid to get up close and personal with other people. When shyly asked by this reporter to take an iPhone “selfie” before departing the St. Albans Park and Ride, the Gov. proclaimed he was the “king of selfies,” and readily took a picture.