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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

'Fiscal Sinkhole' Threatens Road, Bridge Repair In Vermont

VPR/Peter Hirschfeld
Rep. Peter Welch testified at the Statehouse about a potential shortfall in federal transportation funds.

It’s being called the fiscal sinkhole. And it could be coming to a road near you.

In his budget address last week, Gov. Peter Shumlin unveiled a plan for record-setting transportation spending. But partisan politics in Washington, D.C., could soon threaten some of that money.

The problem is in the Federal Highway Trust Fund, a multi-billion dollar pot of money that accounts for about half of Vermont’s annual road budget. And it’s going to run dry in September unless Congress votes to fill it back up.

That uncertainty has state officials on edge. Sue Minter, deputy secretary of transportation, said that if federal lawmakers don’t figure out a solution, and soon, then the resulting shortfall would force her agency to delay key road projects.

“Well we could be looking at cutting almost 30 percent of our program right away,” Minter said. “So it’s in the order of $40 million to $50 million that we would no longer have the ability to spend in Vermont.”

Vermont lawmakers summoned Representative Peter Welch to the Statehouse Thursday to assuage their concerns. But Welch said he can’t make any promises.

“I can’t sit here and tell you that there’s a resolution on this,” Welch said.

Welch said that the problem isn’t unique to Vermont – all states rely to varying degrees on money from the federal fund. And he says that means Republicans and Democrats alike have a stake in finding compromise.

But since revenues funneling into the Highway Trust Fund won’t be enough to cover the money going out, any solution from Congress will require new revenues. And Welch said conversations about revenues on Capitol Hill aren’t easy.

A proposal to increase the federal gas tax by 15 cents per gallon has already been introduced.

“There is an element in the Congress that will just not consider any kind of revenue, under any circumstances,” Welch said. “And there’s another element in Congress that is arguing that the state’s should bear much more of the burden in effect of the transportation policy. And that’s not realistic.”

Welch said the Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee told him he expects to have a bill on the floor by August. But that timeline will be problematic for Vermont.

Transportation Secretary Brian Searles said Vermont needs to put projects out to bid in May in order to have work performed during the next construction season. Searles said he can stick to his schedule, but only if he has assurances by late spring that the federal trust fund is secure.

“But short of that, we’ll have to delay the advertisement of some projects this spring in anticipation of running out of money at the end of the federal fiscal year,” Searles says. “We cannot commit, obligate funds, if we don’t have assurance those funds will flow from the federal government.”

Shulmin’s proposed transportation budget for next year is $686 million, about $33 million more than Vermont will spend on roads, bridges, rail and public transit in this budget cycle.

Searles and Minter said the agency has begun to look at its list of projects to determine which ones will be delayed if the funding issue isn’t resolved soon.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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