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Welch Favors Gas Tax Increase For Road And Bridge Repairs

Peter Hirschfeld
A deteriorating bridge in Waterbury was the backdrop to Rep. Peter Welch's call to replenish the Federal Highway Trust Fund.

You don’t have to look too hard underneath the Interstate 89 overpass here in Waterbury to see signs of wear and tear. Exposed rebar and rusty steel beams betray the structure’s deteriorating condition. And a bright orange sign underneath the overpass warns pedestrians to watch out for falling concrete.

Rich Tetreault, chief engineer at the Vermont Agency of Transportation, says the overpass is far from a lost cause.

“If we replace the steel and decks here we can save much of the substructure,” Tetreault says. “If we wait any longer, than we’re into potentially a full blown bridge replacement, which is a lot more costly.”

But the lion’s share of the money used for interstate upkeep in Vermont comes from a federal pot that’s scheduled to run out of money at the end of the month. And despite the looming deadline, federal lawmakers remain split over how to replenish the Federal Highway Trust Fund.

"This is a serious situation right now that we're facing, and it really is Exhibit A, regrettably, of congressional dysfunction." - Rep. Peter Welch

“This is a serious situation right now that we’re facing, and it really is Exhibit A, regrettably, of congressional dysfunction,” Rep. Peter Welch said Monday.

The Democratic congressman used the Waterbury overpass as a backdrop to his call for a long-term revenue package for the federal fund. Congress has three options: do nothing, and force states to absorb the loss of the federal money on which their current year transportation budgets were based on; come with a short-term funding bridge to cover this year’s expenses; or approve a long-term financing package that would support anticipated federal transportation expenditures for the next six years.

Welch says he favors the latter, and it willing to back a politically unpopular solution to the problem.

“I’m sponsoring a gas tax – I think that’s part of it,” Welch says. “You know, that’s tough, it’s tough on folks.”

Difficult as it may be for struggling residents to absorb yet another increase in the cost of gasoline – Vermont lawmakers approved an increase in the state gas tax last year – Welch says postponing needed infrastructure investments would be far more damaging. Vermont stands to lose out on as much as $100 million in federal funding Congress fails to act.

That sum represents nearly 20 percent of the state’s entire annual transportation budget, and would, according Vermont Secretary of Transportation Brian Searles, postpone or cancel up to 38 road, bridge and rail projects this summer and fall.

"We need to get some money into the fund well before the August recess so we can continue with what is the busiest construction season we've ever had." -Vermont Transportation Secretary Brian Searles

“And we need to get some money into the fund well before the August recess so we can continue with what is the busiest construction season we’ve ever had,” Searles says.

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives this week will offer up a short-term funding solution that would generate the more than $100 billion needed to pay for this year’s state highway programs. The proposal allows private companies to put less money toward future pension benefits, which would have the effect of increasing corporate income tax revenue. Republicans would then earmark that money for transportation.

Welch says it’s a bad idea.

“So we should not be looking to folks depending on a pension to pay for potholes in our roads and bridges,” Welch says.

According to a report from the Congressional Budget Office in May, federal lawmakers would need a 10-to 15-cent increase in the gas tax to bring Federal Highway Tax Fund revenues in line with expenditures.

A deal for short-term funding, whatever the revenue source, would solve Vermont’s immediate funding problems. But Welch and Searles say a longer-term fix would provide state highway officials with the financial stability needed to optimize construction planning.

Cathy Lamberton, executive vice-president of Associated General Contractors of Vermont, says federal inaction would staunch the flow of money into the local economy, and result in the loss of as many as 970 construction jobs in Vermont.

“It affects the unemployment rate. It affects the ability to support your family. It affects their ability to purchase health care,” Lamberton says.

In similar situations in the past, Congress has tapped general fund money to replenish the Federal Highway Trust Fund. Congress is expected to debate a funding package this week.

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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