Senate plans transportation budget, federal dollars in question

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(Host) The uncertainty of future federal transportation funds for state and local projects is causing some problems at the Statehouse. It’s likely that some of the problems will be solved by transferring money earmarked for the Circumferential Highway to local paving projects.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The Transportation Committees at the Statehouse are doing a lot of contingency planning because last year Congress was unable to agree on funding levels for a new transportation bill. Because of this deadlock, Congress passed a six-month extension of the previous year’s transportation budget – effectively level-funding that budget.

There are signs that a new compromise is under serious consideration. Under the compromise Vermont would get an additional $30 to $40 million in federal funds. Senate Transportation Chairman Dick Mazza says his panel is drafting a state transportation plan that doesn’t count on any extra federal money.

(Mazza) “Basically we’re going to use last year’s numbers. And if in fact Washington does get together and pass a bill, at that point we’ll have to decide how to come up with the match to receive more federal funds. Until that time it’s very difficult and almost impossible to build a budget on, assuming that you’re going to get an increase, because at this time we have no idea what the increase will be.”

(Kinzel) Mazza says his committee has decided to put more money into the state’s paving program by transferring some funds from the budget for the Circumferential Highway in Chittenden County; that’s a project that’s on hold pending additional environmental impact reviews.

(Mazza) “Paving is no problem. We’re going to do $40 million this year. We could easily do $50 or $60 million of paving comfortably in the season that we have. I think last year we did $32 million, so the projects are there. We have to be ahead, we have to have a shelf full of projects ready to go. But we don’t necessarily always have the money to do it.”

(Kinzel) Mazza says the state needs to be prepared to allocate an extra $10 million in the event that Congress does boost spending, because the state needs to match a percentage of any new federal money. He thinks taking money from the Transportation Reserve fund is a better choice than raising the state gasoline tax:

(Mazza) “At this time, I don’t think there’s any strong desire to raise any tax, gasoline being over two dollars a gallon. It’s not the proper time to do it.”

(Kinzel) Mazza says it’s unlikely that Congress will reach a compromise before the Vermont session ends, so he says lawmakers will have to draft a contingency plan to deal with a new federal transportation bill.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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