Lawmakers reach deal to reallocate Circ Highway funds

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(Host) The delay of a major highway project in Chittenden County touched off an intense Statehouse battle over how to spend the money that’s now available. Lawmakers from outside Chittenden County were ultimately successful in shifting more of the funds to other projects around the state.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Because a federal court this week halted construction of the Chittenden County Circumferential Highway, the project is on hold for at least two years. That set off a legislative scramble to find new uses for the $33 million that the road required this year and next.

The Douglas administration first proposed that about half of the money remain in Chittenden County. Transportation Secretary Pat McDonald said the rest of the money would get divvied up around the rest of the state.

(McDonald) “So we’d have a total of about $15.7 million available.”

(Dillon) The administration’s plan did not sit well with many committee members. They say there are huge unmet transportation needs around the state, not just in Chittenden County. Windsor Democratic Senator Peter Welch questioned McDonald:

(Welch) “As a member from the rest of the state, why does over 50 percent go to one section of the state and we get chickenfeed in the rest of the state?”

(Dillon) McDonald said the money originally went to the Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization, the body that oversees projects in the county. And Bill Knight, the MPO’s executive director, says that the MP0 controls the 80 percent federal share, and it decides where the money goes.

(Knight) “Our board has to approve release of the funds to the rest of the state. If we don’t release the federal funds, the federal funds are not available for the rest of the state.”

(Dillon) But the Legislature has a legal opinion that contradicts that conclusion. And Welch, the Senate president, says it’s poor policy and bad politics for Chittenden County to try to control the money.

(Welch) “The question is what do you do with the $33 million. The sensible way to deal with that is to look at the overall needs, the priorities, and to make decisions on where the needs are the greatest. That’s the best way, in my view, to do it. Not to have it resolved by a legal dispute as to whether the MPO has some greater claim to the resources of the state than anyone else. That’s going to be divisive, ultimately.”

(Dillon) By the end of the day, the administration came back with a different plan. Chittenden County projects, including a major Winooski redevelopment, would get about $13 million. That freed up roughly $19 million for projects elsewhere around the state. The money will get distributed on a geographically equal basis. The Douglas administration will present details of the spending plan to the House and Senate Transportation Committees within the next two weeks.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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