One of the biggest issues at the Statehouse this winter is a debate over how to repair Vermont’s crumbling roads and bridges.
Last week, the House Transportation committee went on a tour of bridges in Washington County to take a first hand look at some of the most serious problems in the county.
You can find similar situations all over the state.
VPRs Bob Kinzel went along on the tour and filed this special report.
(Sound of bus)
(Kinzel) It’s a cold, crisp afternoon in Barre City and members of the House Transportation committee are getting on a bus to inspect a group of structurally deficient bridges in Washington County.
Roughly 16% of all bridges in Vermont are classified as being structurally deficient – only 8 states have a worse ranking.
This situation is the result of two major factors. First, most of Vermont’s interstate bridges are reaching the end of their 40 year life span. Second, the average age of other state bridges is 52 years and most of these bridges haven’t had any major reconstruction projects for almost 40 years.
House Transportation Chairman Richard Westman is concerned that the Douglas Administration is targeting bridges with the most urgent problems at the expense of projects that need timely repair:
(Westman) "If you’ve got a bridge that needs re-decking and it’s structurally sound but it needs re-decking because it’s starting to leak those are taking a back seat. Well the longer they take a back seat it’s like the roof on your house leaking. You know you really want to fix the leak in the roof or you’re going to destroy stuff and cost yourself a lot more money and that’s kind of the position we’re in right now."
Sound from tour
(Kinzel) The first stop on the tour is the Prospect Street Bridge in Barre City. It’s about two blocks from City Hall and provides a back route to many of the city’s granite companies.
The deck of the bridge is a patchwork of steel grates – some sections have been covered in asphalt and the bridge shakes repeatedly as cars and trucks go across it.
Barre City engineer Reg Abair says the city has been seeking state help for over 10 years.
(Abair)"If you look at the decking itself you can see the pieces that we’ve cut out and have spliced in sections of urban decking. We’ve cannibalized pieces of other bridges put them in our salvage pile and then put them on this bridge here so this bridge is in very tough condition."
Sound of tour
(Kinzel) The second stop on the tour is Barre Town to survey an old bridge that spans Stevens Brook.
As you cross the concrete bridge it curves sharply to the left. It suffers from foundation problems and town officials requested state assistance to replace the bridge in 1981.
The project was delayed for a variety of reasons, and in the early 1990s, local officials banned truck traffic from the bridge to prolong its life. Town Manager Carl Rodgers says that decision had a big impact on a number of large local businesses:
(Rogers) "We have a whole big section of town up there we call the West hill. So for all the people who live up there we wanted to maintain the bridge because this is only one of two ways from in Barre Town to get to the West hill. It’s inconvenience though is for four businesses located up Bridge Street. There’s a Booth Brothers dairy is up the road Bond Auto warehouse…They have stores all over Vermont and in New Hampshire. Their central warehouse is at the top of the hill."
Sound of tour
(Kinzel) At the third stop of the tour, the committee members encounter a situation that astonishes them. They view a bridge in Williamstown that’s on the access road between the town and Interstate 89.
The north end of the bridge is held up by a pile of several dozen four foot concrete cubes – the cubes are bulging out – local officials say they collapse every few years and the bridge is closed for several days to re-stack the cubes.
The bridge can no longer support two lanes of traffic, and so as drivers approach it, they have to navigate who’s going across first.
Larry Hebert, who’s a member of the town’s traffic committee, points to the bridge as a stream gushes underneath the structure:
(Hebert) "The main concern is that the bridge is too narrow and you can’t meet two cars on it. People have to stop. Some people think you can get two cars on it and pile into it…they’ve been working on replacing this since 1983."
Sound from bus
(Kinzel) During the bus ride, Waterbury Rep. Sue Minter says the condition of these bridges demonstrates that the state needs to come up with a comprehensive plan.
(Minter) "It does require money. We can’t pretend that we’re going to be able to keep up when the money is going down. The cost of doing projects is going up. You know construction cost inflation increased 20% last year, 18% the year before…Meanwhile interest payments are half of that and that’s why I’m interested in pursuing a bond package, a significant bond package so that we can actually catch up."
(Kinzel) Transportation Secretary Neal Lunderville says he agrees with the committee on the scope of the problem facing the state – he just disagrees on the solution.
Lunderville says the Administration adopted a policy in 2006 known as the Road to Affordability. He says the basic premise of the plan is to shift more money to maintenance programs by delaying, and in some cases canceling, new road projects.
The Agency is also eliminating special landscaping and lighting plans for many projects to free up money for maintenance programs.
Lunderville says that will allow the Administration to repair the state’s bridges without raising taxes or issuing a major bond:
(Lunderville) " Government has an obligation to spend the taxpayer’s money as if we earned it ourselves, not as if it were given to us. And we have an obligation to make sure we’re spending that money in the best possible way and the most effective way and to look deeply within our $420 million Transportation budget and make sure that we’re spending it on those really critical areas."
(Kinzel) Lunderville bristles at the suggestion made by some lawmakers that the governor isn’t showing leadership on the transportation issue.
(Lunderville)"We’ve had to delay projects and pushed them back in order to spend more money on preventative maintenance and the governor was right in front with this. It’s been certainly a challenge. This shows the governor’s leadership on making the tough decisions on this projects."
(Kinzel) Back on the bus, Chairman Westman has a different view on the question of leadership. He says this issue is a perfect example of a collision of short term political needs and long term policy demands:
(Westman) "Because you look at it and say, ‘Well on my watch we can get by’…if in five years you’re looking at 48% of the road surfaces in this state in very poor condition people will be horrified.."
(Kinzel) And Westman doesn’t think the Administration’s approach is bold enough to address Vermont’s transportation needs:
(Westman) "I don’t think there’s any way that you can belt tighten your way out of this."
(Kinzel) Tomorrow afternoon, Governor Douglas will unveil his budget priorities to lawmakers. His aides say the governor will call for an expansion of his "Road to Affordability" and that he’ll reject plans to raise the gas tax or issue a major transportation bond package.
This means the debate between the House Transportation committee and the Administration will continue for the foreseeable future.
Many local officials will be following the outcome of this debate closely to see if their projects will finally be funded in the coming years.
For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel.
(Host) You can listen to the governor’s budget address Tuesday at 2:00 on VPR’s online legislative stream at vpr.net.