Pending Transportation Cuts Concern Local Officials

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(Host) With the possibility of big cuts in transportation funds, Vermont’s local officials worry that there will be haves and have-nots when it comes to road projects.

VPR’s John Dillon looks at some of the specific projects that could suffer if the reductions occur.

(Dillon) Local officials, from Bennington in the south to Swanton in the north, keep a close eye on the federal highway budget. The Federal Highway Administration sends money back to the states for road repairs, public transportation and bridge projects.

The Bush administration now wants to cut the budget by about $9 billion, a reduction of about 29%. If that happens, some Vermont projects may also be cut.

For example, in Bennington, a bypass was designed to route heavy truck traffic around downtown. One-third of the bypass is nearly complete. But since the project isn’t finished, most of the heavy truck traffic continues to rumble through the downtown.

Town Manager Stuart Hurd says if towns have to fight over a smaller highway budget next year, southern Vermont may lose out to the more populous Chittenden County:

(Hurd) “Given the governor’s reference to IBM and the Circ Highway and a train for IBM in his State of the Union [sic] speech this year, I’d say that’s true.”

(Dillon) Governor Howard Dean has said the Circumferential Highway in Chittenden County is the top priority for IBM, the state’s largest private employer. But officials in Chittenden County are also worried about possible federal cutbacks.

William Knight is director of the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization. That’s the public agency that oversees how the federal road money is used. Knight says construction on the Circumferential Highway is set to resume this spring. The 16-mile road is designed to link many of the suburbs around Burlington.

But the “Circ” costs about $10 million a mile, and 80% of the money comes from the federal government:

(Knight) “Well right now, the Circ is scheduled for construction in June, along with other major highway construction projects in Chittenden County. And of course we’re all hoping this doesn’t happen and that none of these projects will be impacted because they’re scheduled for roughly $42 million in construction this year, And another approximately $40 [million] next year. So, we would, if this happened take a sizeable cut in the county.”

(Dillon) Knight says he’s confident that Congress won’t allow all the cuts to go through. He says numerous projects and thousands of jobs are at stake around the country.

Up in Franklin and Grand Isle County, officials also look to Congress for help in building a new bridge from Swanton to Alburg. The old Missisquoi Bay Bridge is in poor repair and has been scheduled for replacement for more than a decade. But the new bridge will cost $30 million and much of that money has to come from the federal government.

Catherine Dimitruk of the Northwest Regional Planning Commission says Congress has earmarked special funds for the project. She says she’ll keep up the pressure on the congressional delegation and in the Statehouse:

(Dimitruk) “We’ll certainly continue our efforts and step them up quite a bit to make everyone realize that this project can’t be cut, can’t be delayed. ¿ The last time the bridge was tested it got a ranking of seven out of 100 points. It’s not in good condition and it’s the only connection in the northern end of the lake, so it’s really crucial that this corridor stay open.

(Dillon) Environmentalists who have opposed certain highway projects see both good news and bad news in the potential federal shortfall.

Brian Dunkiel, who represents Friends of the Earth, has opposed the Circumferential Highway. But Dunkiel is not cheering over the budget cuts.

(Dunkiel) “This is bad news for Vermont in terms of the ability to move forward with road and bridge maintenance that’s needed in Vermont. It also would most likely have serious impacts on major new projects, like the Circ Highway. However, there’s other significant legal roadblocks and regulatory roadblocks that the Circ highway also faces in any event.”

(Dillon) If the federal budget cuts happen, it would affect projects in the fiscal year that begins October 1.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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