State officials grapple with increasing demand for road repairs

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(Host) A few miles of crumbling pavement on Interstate 89 received a lot of attention earlier this year. But Vermont has more than 300 miles of Interstate and officials say the entire system is in serious need of repair.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Many commuters in northern Vermont know this bumpy stretch of blacktop from Montpelier to Richmond. Wide potholes and crumbling pavement on Interstate 89 make for a bone-jarring ride. But this is just the most visible part of an Interstate system that needs tens of millions of dollars in repairs.

(Pat McDonald) “In fairness, we are falling behind.”

(Dillon) Pat McDonald is Vermont’s transportation secretary. She acknowledges that the state isn’t keeping up with road maintenance, particularly on the 320-mile Interstate system

The problem has not developed overnight. A study done by the state four years ago said Vermont needed to spend $74 million a year just to maintain the Interstates. Yet the state at that time spent $21 million a year on the Interstate system, leaving a gap of $53 million every year. Spending has increased somewhat since then, but the state is still playing catch-up

Part of the problem is that the four-lane highway in many places is 40 years old and needs substantial rebuilding. In addition, McDonald says, many of the Interstate bridges need repair.

(McDonald) “I think over the years there’s been more of a focus on paving and bridges within our own Class I town highways, town highways and state highways, rather than the Interstate.”

(Dillon) The Federal Highway Administration has asked the state to speed up repair of deteriorating bridges on the Interstate and other major routes. Charles Basner is with the highway administration office in Montpelier.

(Basner) “In the last year, we have seen a significant increase, from a percentage standpoint, in the number of bridges in what we call ‘structurally deficient’ bridges. And we had a discussion with the Agency of Transportation as to what approach we could use to try to address that.”

(Dillon) When a bridge is ranked as structurally deficient, it doesn’t mean it’s in immediate danger of collapse. But it is a serious warning to engineers and highway administrators to step up repair or maintenance work.

According to Basner, about seven percent of the bridges on the Interstate and other major routes were structurally deficient in 2002.

(Basner) “And in 2003, that jumped to a little over 13 percent. So it jumped quite a bit.”

(Dillon) That means about 50 of approximately 400 bridges on the Interstate and other major routes need repair or replacement. If you add up all the work that needs to be done on roads around Vermont and then look at the funds available, it’s clear there isn’t enough money to do the job.

The Agency of Transportation did the math recently and determined there’s about a $90 million shortage in the current fiscal year. Next year, there’s a $112 million gap.

Phil Scott is a Republican senator from Washington County who serves on the Transportation Committee. He calculates that the state would have to hike the gas tax by 26.7 cents a gallon to raise $100 million a year. He’s not advocating a jump of that magnitude. But he says Vermont has got to get realistic about funding the needed road work.

(Scott) “We haven’t done anything with the gas tax in quite a few years. And I know that’s unpopular and I don’t like talking about it either. But again the fact is, our appetite is much bigger than our pocketbooks.”

(Dillon) When money and taxes are involved, the issues invariably get political. The Legislature recently battled over how to spend the $33 million that was made available when the Circumferential Highway around Burlington was delayed for two years.

And Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Clavelle recently criticized Governor Jim Douglas for failing to meet the state’s transportation needs. He points out that cost estimates for two major projects – the Circ Highway and the Bennington Bypass – recently ballooned by $90 million.

(Clavelle) “We all know there are some serious unmet transportation needs in the state of Vermont. If you drive Interstate 89, you see them. And we also know that the state Transportation Agency is in disarray. In fact, we could say it’s in meltdown. There is no plan for the state of Vermont.”

(Dillon) But Douglas late last week tried to pin some of the blame on his predecessor, Democrat Howard Dean.

(Douglas) “I inherited a situation where we had reduced dramatically our commitment to transportation infrastructure improvements. We’ve increased them significantly during the last couple of years. It’s going to take longer to address them because of the long period of neglect.”

(Dillon) The governor said he’s tried to catch up on the road work that accumulated during the last 10 years. But so far he’s resisted the idea of using additional bond money or new taxes to pay for the work.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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