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Vermont Highway Spending Boosted by Disaster Funding

Despite a decrease in funds Vermont has increased spending on highway projects.

Wed April 08, 2015 - Northeast Edition

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) Despite a decrease in real dollars that Vermont has received from the federal Highway Trust Fund over the past five years the state has increased spending on highway projects — reducing its backlog of structurally deficient bridges and catching up on much-needed paving projects.

Federal statistics analyzed by The Associated Press show that in the five-year period ending with Fiscal 2013 the state received a 7.8 percent increase in funding from the Highway Trust fund, but that amounts to a decrease of 0.3 percent when adjusted for inflation.

Nevertheless, over that same five-year period Vermont’s overall highway spending increased by 31.2 percent bringing the state’s total spending in 2013 to $518.4 million.

A big reason for the spending increase: Federal Highway Administration payments — separate from the Trust Fund — that helped the state recover from damages caused by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene and other storms in 2011.

Vermont highway spending also got a big boost in federal recovery spending passed after President Barack Obama took office to help states rebound from the Great Recession. Vermont in recent years has done well with federal highway spending.

“Our state has in the last six years raised gas taxes twice. Most states aren’t doing that,’’ Vermont Transportation Secretary Sue Minter said.

Vermont hasn’t been focusing on new, big-dollar highway projects. Rather, the state has been focusing on upgrading existing highway infrastructure such as catching up on bridge repair and replacement and paving projects, Minter said.

“We have been addressing deferred maintenance,’’ Minter said. “I would credit that our state Legislature has invested in us.’’

Several years ago, more than 30 percent of Vermont bridges were considered structurally deficient. Now that number is under 8 percent.

In addition to drawing down federal disaster money, Vermont is putting to use other highway lessons learned after Irene about how to complete projects faster and at reduced costs. One of the methods has been to close a road or highway while bridge construction is under way. It increases local, short-term inconvenience, but makes construction faster, reducing construction costs and helping the state catch up on those needed projects. Another method is using innovative bridge designs, such as the so-called “bridge in a backpack’’ that uses special concrete-filled tubes to support bridge spans. They’re less expensive, faster to build and require less maintenance than traditional bridges.

Minter credits Vermont’s congressional delegation with ensuring the state does well.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who is a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said Vermont has done well under federal transportation programs. He said he has made the case that in Vermont, a rural state with a harsh climate, it costs more to maintain the state’s roads and bridges.

“Vermont has a very small population compared to larger states, and there is a limit to how much we can raise in state and local funds,’’ Sanders said in a statement issued by his office.

While Vermont is chipping away at its highway project backlog, the future is not assured.

“We’ve got a long way to go,’’ Minter said.

Vermont is a border state with Canada, the United States’ largest trading partner, and the state’s highways are a critical part of the national transportation infrastructure. About 60 percent of the Vermont’s freight traffic is passing through the state.

Congress is working on changing the way the money from the Highway Trust Fund works. It’s unclear how that will affect Vermont.

“We remain concerned that small rural states could get left out of the picture,’’ Minter said. “There are a lot of risks ahead.’’

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