A transportation crossroads

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(Host) A lot of transportation funds are going to major construction projects, commentator Timothy McQuiston says some of that money should be diverted to fix roads and bridges accross the state.

(McQuiston) Pardon the pun, but Vermont is at a transportation crossroads. On the one hand are the mega-projects that have been promised for years: The Bennington Bypass, the Circumferential Highway, the Missisquoi Bay Bridge and the Shelburne Road upgrade. They are all under way or nearly so. There are also big projects that are waiting impatiently in the wings, like moving the rail yard in Rutland.

Those projects suck up a lot of transportation funds. Meanwhile, there’s a nearly endless list of smaller bridge and road repairs across the state that have gone begging. The most notable of these, perhaps, is that 18- mile speed bump between Montpelier and Bolton, also known as the northbound lane of Interstate 89.

There are not only a lot of resurfacing and repairs that have been put off because of limited funds, the Transportation Agency just announced that the second leg of the Bennington Bypass is going to cost more than double original projections – a whopping $99 million.

One section of the bypass is already under construction. It’s the proposed second, or North, section which is now under scrutiny. It would run from Route 7 north to Route 9 east. And it’s only four miles long. A third section of the bypass that runs south has now been put off indefinitely.

Bennington officials are not happy. They’re worried they’re never going to see the bypass completed. With such a high price tag for such a short stretch of road, they fear the Legislature will scrap the rest of the project, and heavy trucks and commuters will continue to tangle up traffic in the village.

This all appears to be a lose-lose situation for the roadways and for the politicians who are staring at re-election in a few months. A lot has been promised. One idea is for the state to simply borrow the money needed for road repairs. Typically the state pays only 20 percent for highway projects, with the rest coming from the federal government.

However, former Governor Howard Dean has always been adamantly opposed to the state getting deeper in debt for such projects. It also rubs the fiscally conservative Governor Jim Douglas the wrong way.

Here are a couple of other options. One is to find another way to build that second section of the Bennington Bypass. Come on, $25 million a mile? Surely there’s a way to build it for a lot cheaper.

Another way to save money is to put off construction of the Circumferential Highway. The $45 million stretch just breaking ground links I-89 to IBM in Williston and to the already-built section in Essex.

Selling the Circ to taxpayers had a lot to do with making IBM happy. But whether we like to admit it or not, there is no quid pro quo between IBM’s future in Vermont and the Circ. IBM will stay here and thrive, or not, based solely on its global business requirements.

This is Timothy McQuiston.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.

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