Jeffords warns against federal funds for transportation budget

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(Host) Senator Jim Jeffords says Vermont should not expect any additional federal transportation funds this year because of budget problems in Washington. Legislators say that’s going to make it difficult for the state to address some of its serious infrastructure needs in the near future.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) When the U.S. Senate passed its transportation funding bill last year, Vermont officials were ecstatic. The bill would have dramatically increased federal funds for a wide variety of transportation projects; in Vermont it would have provided an additional $200 million over the next six years.

But the bill never became law because Congress was unable to reach a compromise with the White House. The president was supporting a spending level that was 20 percent lower than the Senate bill. So funding levels for the current fiscal year were renewed at last year’s levels.

Jeffords met with lawmakers at the Statehouse to tell them that the situation could get worse:

(Jeffords) “I think I’d be very cautious in believing what you hear as to what’s going to be available. I’m very afraid that they’re going to try and cut back again to show their conservative bent. But this is the public’s money that goes into the Highway Fund for the purpose of keeping the roads going.”

(Kinzel) Jeffords blames the budget crunch in Washington directly on the war in Iraq:

(Jeffords) “No question about it. Iraq has fouled everything up with respect to our expectations for funding. It’s been a serious problem and it is still there. When it’s going to end we don’t know yet. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be very soon.”

(Kinzel) Senate Transportation Chairman Dick Mazza says the state is facing serious demands to just maintain the existing infrastructure and he says the lack of additional federal funds will force the state to make some very difficult choices:

(Mazza) “If you look at the demands, we’re probably exceeding over $100 million a year on demands – and that’s just infrastructure. Remember, everything is pretty much level-funded. We have no increase in taxes. The Transportation Fund is not as healthy as the General Fund right now. So without new revenues, inflation costs the way they are it’s very difficult to make any progress.”

(Kinzel) Governor Jim Douglas will outline his proposals for meeting the state’s transportation needs in his budget address to lawmakers on Wednesday afternoon.

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

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