No Gas Tax, No Road Projects

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(Host) The Shumlin Administration is bracing for the possibility that all highway construction projects in Vermont might have to be suspended at the beginning of October.

Transportation Secretary Brian Searles says that step would be needed if Congress fails to reauthorize the federal gasoline tax.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The 18-cent federal gas tax will sunset on October 1st unless Congress votes to extend it.

Revenue from the tax goes into the federal Highway Trust Fund and this year Vermont received $210 million from the Fund to finance hundreds of transportation projects.

Congressman Peter Welch says he’s concerned that there’s going to be strong opposition from the House Republican caucus to reauthorize the tax.

(Welch) "We are seeing in Congress that there’s a radical group that has a relentless assault on government. In the debt-ceiling debate they were willing to wreck our credit rating, the Federal Aviation Administration was closed down for 12 days that had the threat to our airports and the gas tax is the next battle. And there are many in Congress who would do the unthinkable."

(Kinzel) Welch says there’s also a possibility that the GOP caucus will extend the tax but only if additional budget cuts are made.

(Welch) "So this new tactic frankly is very threatening to the functioning of government and to the strength of our economy."

(Kinzel) Transportation Secretary Brian Searles says October and November are critical months to complete work on dozens of highway projects and he expects to spend roughly $50 million in federal matching funds during this time period.

He says this work will have to be suspended, and hundreds of workers laid off, if Congress doesn’t extend the federal gas tax.

(Searles) "Because there are simply won’t be enough of a cash balance given the many other needs of the state of Vermont to continue funding these highway projects without 80 percent of the funding guaranteed."

(Kinzel) And Searles says it’s very unlikely that the state would try to temporarily finance these projects on its own.

(Searles) "We’d be looking at the expenditure of $20 to $30 million in October without the surety of having the Trust Fund there to reimburse so I don’t think we could continue for very long at all."

(Kinzel) Searles says the negative impact of not extending the federal gas tax would be felt in virtually every Congressional district and he hopes that members of Congress will consider this reality when they decide the fate of the gas tax.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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