Lake Winnipesaukee — July 30, 2007 — The Department of Safety warned boaters to slow down on Lake Winnipesaukee this summer, when a pilot program would allow Marine Patrol officers to enforce speed limits on two busy sections of the lake. But nearly two months after Memorial Day – the unofficial start of the summer boating season – not a single person has been stopped.Although Marine Patrol has collected data on boat speeds in several high-traffic spots on Lake Winnipesaukee, the actual pilot program – proposed as an alternative to a controversial speed limit bill – has not yet been approved. Officials from the Department of Safety said the earliest the program could start is mid-August – months after state officials and lawmakers expected and weeks before Labor Day, when most people start to take their boats off the lake.
“This process has taken longer than we would have anticipated,” said Marine Patrol Director David Barrett, who said the program was supposed to start early this month. “I’m disappointed that it hasn’t.”
The program would allow the Marine Patrol to enforce speed limits of 45 mph during the day and 25 mph at night in two stretches of water near Bear Island and Rattlesnake Island. There is currently no speed limit on the lake.
Earl Sweeney, the assistant commissioner of safety, said the department expected to pass an interim rule allowing the program to go forward this summer. Upon further review, however, Sweeney said the department discovered it was legally obligated to bring the rule before the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, a process that requires hearings and a public comment period before the rule is considered.
The period allowing written public comment ended Friday, and the department plans to submit the rule to the committee on Thursday at its next meeting, department hearings examiner Marta Modigliani said. After that, the committee would have to hold its own public hearing on the rule, the earliest of which would be Aug. 16, Modigliani said.
“Which is a little bit late because it’s close to Labor Day,” Sweeney said. “But on the other hand, our Marine Patrol is busy virtually from ‘ice out’ to ‘ice in,’ because there are so many people that boat (and) have summer cottages. We think it will give us a good chance to see what’s happening.”
The House Transportation Committee cleared the way for the pilot program in March and decided to retain for further study a bill that would have created a statewide boating speed limit. The committee voted 9-7 to retain the bill, quashing the Legislature’s chance to impose the speed limits this year in favor of “gathering data,” committee Chairman Jim Ryan said.
But supporters of the bill said the program will provide little meaningful data to the committee if it isn’t approved until mid-August.
“I think it opens them to some criticism that the lion’s share of the summer passes before you can take a stab at enforcement or really try to assess the entire implications of speed in those zones,” said Ryan, a Franklin Democrat.
Several committee members asked state officials how soon the program could start, Ryan said, and there was “no sense at the time that there would be a red tape delay.” The committee could take action on the bill as early as next month, and Ryan said committee members are disappointed that there won’t be better information from the department. They hoped it would have included data from Memorial Day weekend and the July Fourth holiday week, he said.
“Our best hope now is to get some reasonable data from Labor Day,” Ryan said.
Some critics of the program said it was a delaying tactic to keep lawmakers from passing a statewide boating speed limit this year. Ryan declined to categorize the program that way last week but said he plans to ask state safety officials why the program didn’t start sooner and why lawmakers weren’t notified as soon as it became apparent that the process would be slowed down.
Rep. James Pilliod, the Belmont Republican who sponsored the speed limit bill, said he doubted whether boaters would travel normally through the two speed enforcement zones once the zones were identified and said the data could be skewed. But Pilliod said it has been suggested that boats have slowed down in those areas, which is undoubtedly a good thing.
The Marine Patrol has been making an “honest effort” to collect data, even though it can’t stop boaters for speeding, Pilliod said. If the data is incomplete, however, it makes no sense for the Department of Safety to present it to the committee, he added. He said a law is the most effective way to discourage speeding boaters.
Pilliod and several other supporters of the speed limit bill attended a department hearing on the pilot program earlier this month.
“We told them we’re very proud of the department for trying to do this, we just don’t think it’s effective, and it’s just delaying the passage of the law,” he said.
Sweeney said there was no intent to delay the passage of a statewide speed limit and said any delays with the pilot program were not anticipated. The extra time has given Marine Patrol the opportunity to notify the public about the program, become familiar with two new laser radar guns and establish benchmarks, such as average speeds before the program and optimal weather conditions for running radar.
Although the program hasn’t officially begun, Marine Patrol officers have monitored seven data zones since early this month that have not been advertised, Barrett said. Officers visit different areas for at least an hour about a dozen times a week. They run radar and record the data – the type of watercraft and how fast it was going – on spreadsheets to be included in a final report for the Legislature.
“This is still giving us hard data, and it’s giving us legitimate operating experience that, while nobody’s getting stopped, there’s no dialogue with the boater. . . . The rest of it is pretty much the same,” Barrett said.
Working with the radar equipment helps the officers get used to conditions on the water, where running radar is difficult when water is choppy or a boat bounces off a wake as it approaches, he said. Readings are also difficult when lake traffic is heavy and boats are coming from different angles.
Last week, Officer Sonny Stern and Marine Patrol Auxiliary member Ray Petty – a volunteer – spent an hour near Bear Island on a perfect boating day – warm, sunny and not too much traffic. Once they set up, they are not supposed to leave the area, Stern said, explaining why he couldn’t stop a boat that traveled well within the 150 feet buffer that boaters are required to maintain.
Petty steadied the radar as another boat headed toward them. Officers must wait until a boat is close enough; the radar won’t give a reading unless the gun is locked on a boat or personal watercraft. The equipment beeped intermittently as Petty tried to hold still, and it let out a longer beep when the officers had a reading.
“The radar is dead on,” Stern said, entering the information into the day’s log.
The men logged more than 50 boats in an hour. The highest speed recorded was 34 mph, but the fastest watercraft – a Jet Ski with two people who cheered and whooped as they passed – could not yield a reading, because it was bouncing on the water too much, Stern said.
Most of the other boat speeds were between 20 mph and 30 mph – consistent with boat speeds in other parts of the lake, Barrett said.
“The data that we’re collecting is not giving us a sense that there’s a lot of high-speed boat traffic,” he said.
Until Columbus Day
If the administrative rule to create the pilot program is passed, the speed limit would stay in effect in the two specified zones for up to eight years, Modigliani said. It is unclear how the speed will be enforced – through citations or fines – and what the speed threshold might be for different disciplinary actions.
Sweeney said he expected the committee to pass the rule, which could be expanded to other parts of the lake if the Department of Safety decides it has been effective. If anyone objects to the rule at the hearing, however, the committee would have 45 days to consider the objection, virtually killing the program for this year.
The Marine Patrol will continue to collect data through Columbus Day, and Sweeney said a report for the Transportation Committee should be ready by the end of October.
Sweeney said he wasn’t sure whether the program would need another summer to provide reliable results, but he said collecting more data will only help lawmakers with a difficult decision that has divided many recreational groups on the lake.
“If you find that something works and you want to expand it and do it in other areas, that’s easy,” Sweeney said. “But it’s kind of difficult to undo if the data doesn’t support it.”
Richard Bouley, a Concord lobbyist and spokesman for Winnipesaukee Families for Boat Safety, one of the primary groups supporting a speed limit for boats, said the Legislature should take action on the bill this year, with or without complete data from the pilot program.
“I think the facts are already before the public,” said Bouley, who plans to attend the hearing before the rules committee. “I think the Legislature’s the one that needs to decide. There’s no one else but them.”