Washington stalemate may affect Vermont transportation funding

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(Host) A deadlock in Washington over a federal transportation bill threatens to stall projects in Vermont. Senator Jim Jeffords blames President Bush, who has threatened to veto the measure.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) When Transportation Secretary Pat McDonald put together this year’s state transportation budget, she was counting on $133 million in federal funds. But Congress has failed to pass the six-year transportation bill, so McDonald says the state may have to make do with last year’s amount, which is $7 million less.

(McDonald) “Certainly, we will be looking at putting out fewer, advertising fewer projects next winter unless we get a much better handle on how much money will be getting going forward.”

(Dillon) Among the projects in jeopardy is a plan to improve the railroad between Bennington and Burlington. McDonald says the rail work is included in the transportation bill that’s now deadlocked in a House-Senate committee.

(McDonald) “I’m not sure that project would get covered any other way. That project does have to go through reauthorization.”

(Dillon) Public transportation service in central Vermont is also threatened by the congressional gridlock. The Green Mountain Transit Authority provides bus service between Montpelier and Barre. The funding for specific routes comes from the federal government under a program that’s designed to help low-income people.

Chris Cole, the executive director of Green Mountain Transit, says this federal money runs out September 30.

(Cole) “Specifically for central Vermont it means that the city route which operates between Montpelier and Barre will have to be reduced in half. So instead of having a half-hour headway, or frequency, when the bus comes by, we’ll have an hour frequency. And we’ll also have to eliminate our Saturday service to the hospital from Montpelier and Barre.”

(Dillon) Senator Jim Jeffords is the ranking minority member of the committee that’s responsible for the transportation bill. The Senate has passed a $318 billion bill, while the House has approved $276 billion. President Bush has threatened to veto either amount.

Jeffords blames the president for the impasse. He says that Bush won’t support transportation funding, because of a budget deficit created by the war in Iraq.

(Jeffords) “There’s no question that this terrible war that we’re involved in is creating the pressure because it’s costing much more than anyone anticipated and it’s dragging on and draining our treasury. So that’s a rationale to dip into our highway funds. But that shouldn’t be. Those aren’t the funds to be diverted.”

(Dillon) McDonald, the Vermont transportation secretary, says major projects like the Bennington Bypass will probably not be affected. But she says other new road construction will be stalled unless the federal funds come through.

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

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