House OKs transportation bill, but more funding may be needed

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(Correction: In the accompanying audio, we said the Douglas administration proposed cutting the public transit portion of the budget by $2 million, when in fact it is $1.2 million dollars.)

(Host) The Vermont House has given the OK to a major transportation spending plan. But lawmakers – including the House Transportation Committee Chairman – acknowledge that there’s not enough money to maintain the state’s aging roads and bridges.

VPR’s John Dillon has the story.

(Dillon) Richard Westman sat in his committee room and studied a spread sheet prepared by the Legislature’s fiscal analysts.

The numbers show a wide gap between what needs to be fixed, and what the state has available to spend.

(Westman) “If we are going to replace things and do upgrades on a 30-year life cycle basis, not to improve things, but to stay where we are, we would need $573 million. This budget is $403 million. So the gap is over $150 million.”

(Dillon) The problem is that revenues coming into the Transportation Fund have declined, just as demand has increased.

Westman gave a few examples of the cost squeeze. He said that right now, 25% of the roads are rated in poor condition. But he says at current spending levels, the roads will get worse not better.

(Westman) “And if we maintain the $56 million level of paving that we’re at right now in this budget for the next five years, that will increase to 48% of our roads in very poor condition.”

(Dillon) The bill passed by the House does not allocate money for public transit systems. Westman says that issue will be addressed in separate legislation.

Jim Moulton is chairman of Vermont Public Transportation Association. He says ridership is going up around Vermont – yet the Douglas Administration proposed a $1.2 million cut in public transit spending.

(Moulton) “Between fiscal year 2005 and 2006 in Vermont there was over a 9 percent increase in ridership statewide. That’s a trend that’s been consistent at least for the past five years. It is hard to see a proposed budget that puts less money into public transportation when clearly people are using it, and people are demanding it.”

(Dillon) The Transportation Committee may consider a new surcharge on low mileage vehicles to help pay for public transportation.

Westman says the idea fits with the legislature’s focus on climate change. But he says no decision has been made.

(Westman) “I don’t think there’s any one specific thing that we’re looking at right now. I will tell you, there is a bill on our wall that deals with gas guzzlers. I think there’s a number of people on the committee who want to look at that.”

(Dillon) But the Douglas Administration opposes the gas guzzler surcharge. The Administration also doesn’t like a section of the bill that sets up a separate fund to pay for local road projects.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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