Transportation budget shortfall points to growing upkeep problem

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(Host) Vermont’s transportation budget has a shortfall of more than $2 million.

State officials say the deficit will be covered by money from other parts of state government.

But they say it highlights the growing problem Vermont faces in paying for the upkeep of its roads and bridges.

VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports:

(Sneyd) Vermont spends more than $420 million a year on transportation, so $2 million is a relatively small percentage of the total.

What worries legislators and top members of the administration, though, are the trends.

Transportation Secretary Neale Lunderville says state taxes on gasoline, diesel and car sales are flat or declining and have been for a while now.

(Lunderville) “The Transportation Fund has been affected over the course of the entire last fiscal year by people simply buying less gas and buying less expensive cars.”

(Sneyd) More fuel efficient cars are becoming much more popular, too.

That’s good for the environment, but it doesn’t help fill the state’s treasury.

So while money is shuffled to balance the current budget, Lunderville says more challenges are on the horizon.

(Lunderville) “In the near term, our budgets are solid, our forecasts look good. But in the long term we are going to have to have conversations with the Legislature and the people of Vermont on how we’re going to pay for transportation and what projects we really want to fund.”

(Sneyd) Some critics of the administration say that’s a conversation that needs to begin now.

House Speaker Gaye Symington says she plans to meet soon with the Snelling Center think tank to look at possible solutions.

Symington says the state is hundreds of millions of dollars behind on basic maintenance.

(Symington) “On a $400 million annual transportation budget we need about $140 million more every year if we want to just keep even with where we are now.”

(Sneyd) Some pressure on the budget has been relieved in recent years with the completion of costly projects like the Missisiquoi Bay Bridge and reconstruction of Route Seven south of Burlington.

Colchester Democrat Richard Mazza is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. He points out that big-dollar projects remain: the Bennington Bypass and the Circumferential Highway in Chittenden County.

(Mazza) “I don’t know how we can continue on the road we’re on now without something changing. But it’s not unique to Vermont. Nationwide this problem is happening.”

(Sneyd) Mazza says he expects a joint House-Senate committee to begin tackling the funding issue when it meets later this month.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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