Road Repairs Will Top $700 Million, But Federal Aid Uncertain

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(Host) The repair costs to state roads and bridges damaged by Tropical Storm Irene continue to climb. Transportation officials say the total will now exceed $700 million dollars.

As VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports, the new projections come at a time when the state is trying to get a lot more federal money to help repair Vermont’s transportation infrastructure.

(Sound of steel saw)

(Kinzel) That’s the sound of steel saws at a bridge just north of Moretown four weeks ago. The approach deck to the bridge was totally destroyed by flood water.

(Sound of highway)

(Kinzel) This is the sound at the bridge today. After nearly four weeks of work and tens of thousands of dollars, the bridge has been completely restored.

It’s now estimated that the repair costs to the state’s transportation system will be at least $700 million. The question is who is going to pay this bill.  

Currently, the federal government pays 100 percent of the cost in a disaster, but there’s a cap of $100 million. States have to pay 20 percent of the costs above the cap. In Vermont’s case, this would be an additional $120 million

Senator Patrick Leahy has added a provision in the 2012 Transportation Bill that allows states to seek a waiver to eliminate the cap.  He says the outlook in the Senate is very good but he’s concerned that House Republican leaders will demand that the waivers be paid for by making other budget cuts. If they do, he has an idea.

(Leahy) "There’s a whole lot of money in the pipeline for Iraq and Afghanistan. They want an offset, take it out of there. I’m tired of paying for road building, bridge building, empire building in Iraq and Afghanistan where they hate us anyway and we can’t take care of America for Americans when Americans have problems."

(Kinzel) Deputy Transportation Secretary Sue Minter says the state will face some very difficult decisions if the federal cap isn’t eliminated.

(Minter) "We’ve been doing that work without asking how we’re going to pay for it. If the federal government fails to come through on its commitment that it’s met everywhere across the country, we will have to look to our regular program funds to see where we can delay projects or do things differently within our normal program to fund all the work that we’ve had to put into Irene."

(Kinzel) Minter says the state wants to have all roads in "passable" condition before the end of the year. She says this goal poses some significant challenges in several parts of the state.

(Minter) "We, however, know that the hardest part is yet to come. We’ve identified some critical areas, including Route 107 in the Stockbridge area, Route 131 in Cavendish, 106 in Weathersfield, as areas that will really take possibly until Thanksgiving or even Christmas to complete."

(Kinzel) The U.S. Senate is expected to vote on Leahy’s amendment sometime next week. Leahy is optimistic that it will pass because it received strong bipartisan support in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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