Bonds proposal would offset low receipts in Transportation Fund

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(Host) There’s going to be a spirited debate at the Statehouse this winter over a plan to increase short-term funding for major transportation projects. Advocates of the proposal say it will be difficult to maintain many of the state’s roads and bridges if their approach is not adopted.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) This is a time of great uncertainty for the state’s transportation system. Congress has failed to pass a new transportation budget bill and as a result funding levels from Washington have not increased.

Revenues from the Vermont Transportation Fund are running lower than projected. While receipts from the state gasoline tax are up, motor vehicle purchase and use revenues are down. In December, the Transportation Fund ran almost $2.5 million below target projections.

There are a number of lawmakers who are very concerned that the state will be unable to properly maintain its transportation infrastructure because three major construction projects will require enormous amounts of money. Those three projects are the Bennington Bypass, the Mississquoi Bay Bridge and the Circumferential Highway in Chittenden County. These lawmakers want to implement a plan that’s been used in several other states. It allows the state to issue bonds this year to pay for these major projects; the bonds would then be paid off with future federal transportation funds.

Bennington Senator Dick Sears is the lead sponsor of the bill that would authorize this plan, the issuance of so-called Garvee bonds. This is the first bill introduced in the Senate this year:

(Sears) “The concern is that we have some major projects that need funding and we’re trying to build them on a pay-as-you-go basis; major projects that are taking away from other normal maintenance and paving projects. And we’re in a crisis and it was my thought that had we built the interstate highway with a pay-as-you-go basis, the way we’re building these major projects, and we started in the south in Vernon – we’d probably be in Bellows Falls by now.”

(Kinzel) Governor Jim Douglas is not supporting this approach. He’s concerned about the additional debt load that the state would have to take on. The governor feels there are better ways to deal with this situation:

(Douglas) “I guess I could see it if the situation were more dire, if we had – for example, as Connecticut did a few years ago – a major bridge collapse that required immediate replacement and reconstruction and we couldn’t accommodate it in our budget. Or if we had a debt level in Vermont that was substantially lower than it is now. But I believe we can meet the state’s infrastructure needs in a responsible way.”

(Kinzel) The Senate Transportation Committee is expected to look at this legislation later this month.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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