Editor’s note: The video is of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s press conference in Northfield last week. In the footage, he talks about how important it is for Congress to act as soon as possible on funding for federal highway emergency aid.
Gov. Peter Shumlin announced on Monday that the cost of repairing the damage to transportation infrastructure caused by Tropical Storm Irene will be about half what state officials originally estimated.
Two weeks ago Neale Lunderville, the Irene recovery czar, said preliminary “worst case” scenario estimates for transportation infrastructure repairs came in at about $600 million. At a press conference on Monday, the Shumlin administration pegged those estimates at “an order of magnitude lower” — between $175 million to $250 million.
“Why the difference?” Shumlin asked rhetorically. “It’s very tough to predict costs after a storm. That’s why there was no special session of the Legislature.”
Lunderville warned that the new road repair estimates are preliminary. There may be new unforeseen damage that emerges – sinkholes, bridge abutment scours, roadside collapses – that workers have not yet identified.
The dramatic shift brings the overall estimate of Irene damage well below the roughly $900 million mark state officials were citing in mid-October. The new grand total is about $500 million and includes $250 million for new emergency and long-term highway repair costs, $50 million to construct a new Vermont State Hospital, $50 million for stabilizing the old state office complex and renovating or building new space, about $19 million in individual assistance and $140 million in repairs to town roads, bridges and public facilities.
Shumlin said the lower estimates are good news for the state budget and taxpayers.
One reporter asked officials how they got the numbers so “wrong.” Jeb Spaulding, secretary of the Agency of Administration, said, “I don’t think we got it wrong. … If we’re going to make a mistake, we’d rather be on the conservative side.”
Minter admitted that their original calculations were way off in part because she said workers were so absorbed in the immediate aftermath of the emergency that they didn’t have time to run the numbers precisely. The new estimates are based on 640 detailed damage reports the state submitted to the federal government. The reports include costs for labor, materials, equipment and movement of materials.
“We asked for estimates at the same time workers were in emergency mode,” Minter said.
Joe Flynn, incident commander for the Rutland area transportation headquarters, said VTrans workers were putting in 16 to 20 hours a day and “there was a chaos and a fog and we wanted to do the best we could.” “If you want to err, you want to err on the high side,” he said.
State officials attributed the drastic reduction in costs to a variety of factors, including the efficacy of emergency construction techniques and the extraordinary dedication of VTrans workers, the Vermont National Guard and private contractors. In all, 500 miles of roads were reopened in just two months after the Aug. 28 storm. Two bridges and nine miles of highways – Route 107 in Stockbridge, Route 106 in Weathersfield and Route 131 in Cavendish – remain closed.
“No one imagined in the first and second week after the storm that so much would be accomplished,” Minter said.
The state also saved millions of dollars by taking short cuts during the post-Irene emergency that normally would be prohibited under state and federal laws. The standard pre-construction procedures for road and bridge repair were abandoned in order to expedite the process, according to Sue Minter, deputy commissioner of the Agency of Transportation. The processes that are normally followed for transportation projects — federal and state permitting, environmental mitigation, design review, planning, right-of-way purchases – went by the wayside.
Transportation workers didn’t have to keep roads open and contend with traffic. In some cases they used gravel and rock dug from rivers and collected from fields where floodwaters had left deposits of aggregate.
Temporary road closures during construction may become the new VTrans policy post-Irene. The governor said Vermonters may have to put up with the inconvenience of detours as the state rebuilds roads and bridges. He anticipates less money from the U.S. Department of Transportation in the coming years, and the road workarounds may be one way to save the state substantial sums of money and reduce the length of time for project completion.
Minter pointed to a bridge project in Newark as an example of how a brief road closure can hasten VTrans work and save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars. A bridge on Route 114 in the town was closed to traffic for one month during construction. As a consequence, it cost $300,000 to build instead of the average $1.5 million pricetag for bridge installation, she said. The bridge was completed in three months, as opposed to several years.
Shumlin said his administration’s objective is to figure out “how do we make it (transportation construction) smarter, cheaper and more efficient” in the future.
The new estimates “relieve pressure” on the state’s budget, Jeb Spaulding, secretary of the Agency of Administration said.
The state still needs help from the federal government – and a lift of the $100 million cap on federal highway emergency aid – but the lower estimate brings the state “a lot closer” to recovering from the disaster without a “decades-long” impact on Vermont’s transportation system, which had a large backlog of badly deteriorated roadways and bridges before Irene hit.
If Congress approves lifts the cap and the state receives more than $100 million in federal emergency highway aid and the maximum amount of public assistance through FEMA (the 90 percent/10 percent match rate), the state would need $40 million to cover transportation repairs. Beth Pearce, the state treasurer, has said there is $83 million in untapped revenue bonding capacity that could cover this exigency.
So far, the state has paid about $21 million out of pocket for Irene expenses, Spaulding said. In addition, Lexington Inc., the state’s insurer, has issued $10 million in insurance claims and Congress has paid about $20 million toward transportation costs. “We’re in no immediate crisis, the state is paying its bills,” he said.