A national transportation group report ranked Vermont’s rural roads as the worst in the nation, and that’s unlikely to change unless the U.S. Senate’s version of a pending transportation bill prevails. If it doesn’t, the state will have to cut $160 million from transportation spending over the next five years, Vermont Transportation Secretary Brian Searles said Tuesday.
“The Senate bill is the one we support,” Searles explained at a joint press conference with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. “The House bill, frankly, takes us several steps backward.”
The Senate will debate the highway reauthorization bill this week, said Sanders, a member of the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Its version provides $109 billion for infrastructure improvements nationally over two years. That would mean about $408 million for Vermont.
VTrans depends on federal money, Searles said. “Our capital program is about 80 percent federally funded. Overall spending for the agency is about 60 percent federal.”
Searles said the House version of the transportation bill, which covers five years, also eliminates the transit account, which is funded by 2.86 cents federal gas tax, and puts transit funding in competition with other priorities. The House reverses accepted environmental protections that “are obviously important to Vermont,” he said.
“Normally we would like a longer bill,” Searles acknowledged. But in the current political environment “two years does give us time to look at this fairly shortly.”
Sanders noted that a third of Vermont’s bridges are “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete” and 36 percent of the state’s “federal-aid roads are in need of major repairs.”
“In fact, a national report recently ranked Vermont’s rural roads as the worst in the nation, and that was before Tropical Storm Irene caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages,” Sanders said.
The report, “Rural Connections: Challenges and Opportunities in America’s Heartland,” was released in September by TRIP, a national transportation research group. It concluded that rural areas face significant transportation challenges including problems with traffic capacity, connectivity, freight traffic, road and bridge conditions, and safety features. Additionally, rural roads have a fatality rate higher than other roads.
Beyond the more than 30 percent of Vermont roads in need of serious work, TRIP rated another 42 percent of major rural roads in the state as mediocre or fair. Although the overall fatality rate on U.S. roads has recently dropped, “traffic crashes and fatalities on Vermont’s rural roads remain disproportionately high, occurring at a rate nearly three times higher than on all other roads,” the report said.
Some consolation is provided by a chart indicating that Vermont is not in the top 20 for either total fatalities or deficient bridges. Texas and California see the most deaths on rural roads. Pennsylvania and Rhode Island have the highest percentage of deficient rural bridges.
In 2009, Vermont’s non-interstate rural roads had a traffic fatality rate of 1.31 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles of travel, compared to a fatality rate on all other roads of 0.46 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles of travel.
Of 74 Vermont traffic fatalities in 2009, 60 were on rural, non-interstate roads. “Inadequate roadway safety design, longer emergency vehicle response times and the higher speeds traveled on rural roads are factors in the higher traffic fatality rate,” the report said.
“Roads, bridges and public transportation do not get better unless you invest in improvements,” said Sanders. “In fact, the absurdity of what we do is, if you ignore infrastructure it only gets worse and adds to the expense of the project when it is finally undertaken.”
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that more than $2 trillion would be needed in the next five years to bring all U.S. roads, bridges and public transit up to passable condition, Sanders said.
The Senate version of the bill, although more modest than hoped, will “save more than 1.8 million jobs nationwide in each of the next two years, and it will create a million new jobs through an expanded infrastructure financing programs,” Sanders said. “This bill can put a lot of people back to work here in Vermont and across the nation.”
Searles argued that the Senate has been able to develop a bipartisan bill, while “there is no bipartisanship in the House on their version.”
Sanders agreed, pointing to cooperation between Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the Senate Transportation and Public Works Committee, and ranking Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, “who is not one of the more progressive members of the Senate.”
Inhofe has views “that are very different than Barbara Boxer’s or mine,” Sanders explained. But he understands that his state, Oklahoma, “has very significant infrastructure problems, as does Vermont and virtually every other state in the country. So, what you have seen in the Senate is the coming together of some of the most conservative members and some of the most progressive members to pass a bill which is not as strong as it should be. But given the climate in Washington right now, it is a significant step forward.”