Federal transportation bill may force Vermont construction priorities

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas says the state will have to scale back some of its transportation projects in the coming year if Congress doesn’t support increased spending in a national transportation bill. The Bush administration is taking a hard line with Congress over the issue and the president has threatened to veto the legislation that Douglas wants to see enacted.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The timing over this issue is critical because funding for the current federal transportation law expires on Friday. Congress is looking at a new six-year spending plan.

The Senate wants to allocate roughly $318 billion a year and the House has proposed $284 billion. However, President Bush has threatened to veto any legislation that appropriates more than $256 billion a year.

These differences are very important for the state of Vermont. Under the Senate plan, the state would receive roughly $160 million a year; that’s an increase of more than $30 million from the House bill.

One option Congress is considering is an eight-month extension of current funding levels. Governor Douglas says that’s bad news because the state’s transportation budget counts on some additional federal funds this year:

(Douglas) “We really need additional support. We rely on the federal government for in most cases 80 percent of our support for transportation projects and the costs keep going up – steel prices in particular in terms of bridge construction are going up. We need to have the support on which we’ve come to rely. If it’s not we’ll obviously have to establish priorities, look for ways to stretch our dollars even more. And there’s no question that we can’t do as much if we don’t get the additional support.”

(Kinzel) Douglas says he understands the president’s desire to keep transportation spending under control to help reduce the federal budget deficit. But the governor says this is one case where the additional money is justified:

(Douglas) “I also expect he understands how important transportation infrastructure is, not only to the safety and economy of our states, but also for the short-term benefit of construction employment while the projects are under way. So in terms of fiscal responsibility, I understand where he’s coming from. But I hope that he’ll understand how important these funds are to the states.”

(Kinzel) If the federal funding levels are not increased, Douglas says his administration will have to work with the Legislature to determine which state projects will stay on schedule and which ones will be delayed.

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

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