By Anne Galloway, VTDigger.org
The Vermont Agency of Transportation will have to put $100 million worth of bridge, road and rail projects on hold if Congress does not shore up the federal highway trust fund by Aug. 1.
In all, 38 projects could be affected. The agency was counting on $195 million from the trust fund this year.
The trust fund is running out of money because gas tax revenues have declined; Americans are driving less and using more efficient cars. The national gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon and has not been increased since 1993.
Brian Searles, the secretary of the Agency of Transportation, says the federal government approved 80 to 100 projects for Vermont in this budget cycle. The state has moved ahead with construction on most of those projects, but now that the federal reimbursement rate could be reduced from 80 percent to as little as 30 percent, Searles said the agency had no choice but to put 38 projects on the back burner.
Most of the state’s construction program is already under contract, Searles said, “and we’ve got to pay those bills.” The state treasurer has set aside up to $15 million for current projects.
Searles said the agency will not seek bids for projects that were teed up for construction later this year. “We don’t want to take on additional projects if Congress hasn’t acted,” he said.
Of those 38 projects, 20 are bridges; the rail funding is for crossing improvements.
The agency has 800 to 1,000 projects under phases of development at any given time. The state’s capital program for rail, roads and bridges is $400 million to $450 million out of a total transportation budget of $685 million this year.
“It’s the most aggressive capital program we’ve ever had,” Searles said. The agency was operating under the assumption the state would have the funds to carry out the federal program.
On Monday, July 14, the Vermont Agency of Transportation provided a list of the most critical Vermont transportation projects that are in jeopardy if Congress fails to reauthorize the Highway Trust Fund by the end of the month.
Local projects include: Two Rutland City bridges that span the Otter Creek, the Ripley Road and Dorr Drive bridges (the latter has been slated for replacement for 20 years already); Ludlow rail improvements at West Hill Road/Green Mountain railroad crossing; a Shrewsbury bridge with necessary approach work; Cavendish bridge work for the Green Mountain Rail; a Castleton replacement bridge on Route 30 over the Clarendon and Pittsford railroad; an East Clarendon rail crossing; painting of the Castleton-West Rutland bridges on Route 4; and a replacement of existing truss bridge for the railway in Pittsford.
A stopgap measure has been proposed and is gaining traction in Congress. House and Senate committees are drafting competing plans for a short-term fix. No long-term measures are on the table at this point, but many delegates from Vermont and nationwide are beginning to propose plans to create a sustainable funding source for infrastructure improvements.