Transportation bill clears final hurdle; VTrans to kick into high gear

Secretary of Transportation Brian Searles speaking before members of the Vermont House and Senate on Wednesday. VTD/Josh Larkin
Secretary of Transportation Brian Searles speaking before members of the Vermont House and Senate on Wednesday. VTD/Josh Larkin

After 11 weeks of agonizing negotiations, persistent insistence and political cajoling, Vermont’s congressional delegation landed a major victory last night when Congress gave final approval for the waivers the state needs for additional highway disaster relief.

The Senate overwhelmingly approved the “Leahy amendment” by a 70 to 30 vote on Thursday afternoon, and the House gave its okay to the transportation budget bill three hours later by a vote of 298 to 121. Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch, both Democrats, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, worked tirelessly to make the case that a vote against disaster aid in this instance would put all funding for future emergencies in jeopardy. On Monday, congressional leaders struck a deal to accept a waiver of the $100 million cap on emergency transportation funding and a 180-day time limit for disaster-related repairs. The negotiations paved the way for passage of the provision. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill right away.

The legislation will infuse the Vermont economy over the next three years or so with as much as $250 million in funding for transportation infrastructure repairs on the state highway system, which were severely damaged by Tropical Storm Irene on Aug. 28. Approximately 500 miles of state maintained roadways were impassable and 37 bridges were damaged. In addition, hundreds of miles of town roads and about 100 bridges were inaccessible after floodwaters in southern and central Vermont receded. (Funding for the latter is expected to come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.)

Without the waiver, Vermont faced a $175 million to $250 million shortfall for Irene-related highway funding, or roughly the equivalent of the state’s highway spending in an ordinary year.

Until this week, there was no guarantee that the federal government would step in, as it has in the past for natural disasters in other states, to rescue Vermont from a transportation budget crisis.

“Back in September some thought this day would never come,” Leahy said in a statement. “The feeling was that a Congress that’s stuck in the slow gear with the brakes on couldn’t or wouldn’t get it done. But this bill has been Job One for Vermont ever since Irene, and we wouldn’t take any answer but yes. On the Appropriations Committee I pressed the importance of this funding and these Vermont waivers. We got it passed and kept the ball rolling steadily forward.”

Leahy also pushed for the replenishment of $1.662 million for the depleted Federal Highway Administration emergency fund. The Senate also passed another provision that pushes heavy trucks off state highways that pass through village downtown centers.

Without the lifting of the $100 million cap on spending, the state would have faced a three- to five-year budget impact on the transportation budget that would have further delayed a backlog of much-needed repairs to the state’s deteriorating infrastructure in other parts of the state.

Given the partisan rancor now hobbling Congress, the bill’s passage is a remarkable feat of political chutzpah and finesse. It also is an indication that Leahy, who is in the No. 2 position on the Senate Appropriations Committee, still holds sway in Congress.

Welch, who petitioned Reps. John Boehner and Rep. Eric Cantor to approve the Leahy amendment, said he was “grateful that House Republican and Democratic leaders alike listened carefully and responded to the needs of Vermont – proving that Congress can, in fact, work together to get the job done.”

“I deeply appreciate the support of Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Cantor, Majority Whip McCarthy, Minority Leader Pelosi, Minority Whip Hoyer, and members of the House Appropriations Committee for their support,” Welch said in a statement. “They are operating in an extraordinarily difficult budget environment. This could not have been done without their help.”

VTrans will kick into high gear

The passage of the Leahy amendment was welcome news for Gov. Peter Shumlin and state budget-writers.

Brian Searles, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation, said the additional federal funding is crucial. Without it, a number of temporary bridges would have been kept in place for as long as decade. Now VTrans can move ahead with permanent post-Irene repairs on the state highway system — and simultaneously work on planned projects elsewhere that have been in the pipeline for some time.

The $27 million Morristown truck route will now proceed on schedule, for example, he said.

“Many of those projects have been in development or at least discussion for years,” he said. “We never have a problem spending that allocation — there’s always more need than money.”

Searles said now the challenge is to spend all the money. VTrans will look to hire more employees, contracting firms and consultants so that the agency can carry out plans for the normal construction cycle and the extra load for Irene.

“It’s a challenge we like,” Searles said. “Now we know have the money, we can rebuild our program to reflect accomplishment of both goals — for the Irene damage and the regular program.”

The roughly $12 million state match for the federal funds will likely come from the transportation fund, according to Jeb Spaulding, the secretary of the Agency of Transportation. The General Fund could also take a small hit – of $14 million — for reimbursements to out-of-state National Guard outfits that came to Vermont’s aid in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

Neale Lunderville, the Shumlin administration’s recovery czar, said the bill’s passage “was an early Christmas present for Vermont.” Had the legislation failed, the state would have been on the hook for $150 million — the equivalent of a very large lump of holiday coal.

Editor’s note: A write-thru of this story was posted at 5:38 a.m. Nov. 18, 2011.

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