Administration hopes for more federal transportation money

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(Host) As Vermont’s budget crisis deepens, the Douglas Administration hopes the federal government will pay more for road and bridge repair.

The Administration also wants to increase motor vehicle fees in order to stem a growing deficit in the transportation fund.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Transportation Secretary David Dill had a glimmer of good news as he spoke before a legislative budget committee.

Dill said Congress is working on an economic stimulus bill that could funnel $60 million dollars to Vermont for highway bridge projects.

(Dill) "The key question is what are the ground rules going to be? From the very first day last January when we submitted that list of projects I said the upmost caveat is that this has to be 100 percent federally eligible. We do not have state or local funds to match. And they get it, and all the states are on board with that."

(Dillon) Normally, federal highway funds come with a very large string attached -a requirement that states come up with 10 or 20 percent of the project’s cost.

Dill is hopeful that Congress will waive the match requirement. He’s also working with the state’s congressional delegation on changes that will allow states to use streamlined procedures as they put projects out to bid.

(Dill) "In the meantime, we’re compiling lists of projects that we can pick and chose from based on what the ground rules turn out to be".

(Dillon) The potential infusion of federal dollars comes as the state faces a growing deficit in its $240 million dollar transportation fund.

This week, officials predicted that revenues would decline an additional $4.1 million dollars in the next fiscal year.

So the administration will delay buying trucks and other equipment. Dill says the agency will also send less money to towns for local road projects. The reductions will average about $7-thousand dollar per town.

(Dill) "This is the first time we have ever suggested a town highway aid cut. We don’t want to do it, it’s just the fact that we’re that far along in these transportation downgrades of state revenues that we have little other choices."

(Dillon) Dill said it’s possible – but not likely – that the federal stimulus money will mean the state can avoid cutting the town road funds.

(Dill) "So much depends on what the ground rules are going to be for how we can use that stimulus package."

(Dillon) And Richard Westman, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, says the federal money won’t fix the state’s chronic transportation funding shortfall.

(Westman) "I think if we get federal money what we’re talking about is maybe doing a few more projects but it ultimately doesn’t deal with the underlying problem we have of running the agency."

(Dillon) Officials say Congress probably won’t pass the stimulus bill in its current lame-duck session.  They’re expecting action in January at the earliest.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier

AP Photo/Toby Talbot

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