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Vt. Infrastructure Damages Could Pass $500 Million

Fri September 23, 2011 - Northeast Edition
John Curran

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) Fixing the infrastructure carnage left by Tropical Storm Irene will cost between $300 million to $500 million, Vermont’s transportation secretary told lawmakers Sept. 13, giving the first public estimates of the cost of repairing dozens of bridges, roads and culverts wrecked in flooding.

That’s not counting the damage to municipal roads, which Transportation Secretary Brian Searles told lawmakers also will be “huge.”

Cleaning up and stabilizing the flood-damaged Waterbury state office complex will cost $15 million to $20 million, according to Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding, who sat beside Searles at a meeting of the Joint Fiscal Committee as they delivered the grim numbers.

“We suffered loss of life, we suffered loss of homes, we suffered loss of livelihoods for many people and very personal losses,” Searles said. “The good news about infrastructure is that it’s replaceable. It’s temporary. And we’re working on that. But it is also huge.”

Progress has been made, due to help from National Guard units from five states, transportation workers from three states, an army of private contractors and help from members of the public who have taken it upon themselves — and their tractors, backhoes and excavators — to pitch in.

According to the Agency of Transportation:

• Of 139 segments of state routes closed after the Aug. 28 storm, 124 have reopened either to emergency vehicles only, one lane only or to “varying levels of service.”

• Of 34 state bridges closed, 13 have reopened.

Whatever the tab, Vermont taxpayers won’t be on the hook for all of it. Federal reimbursement will be available for some, but the percentage isn’t known yet.

Typically, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reimburses at a rate of 75 percent federal, 12.5 percent state and 12.5 percent local. But Vermont’s expenses will be so exorbitant that the state may qualify for a 90 percent-10 percent split instead, according to Spaulding.

By law, the Federal Highway Administration’s relief program can provide only up to $100 million in emergency funding to a state for each natural disaster. But the state and its three-member congressional delegation will be pushing for a special authorization to lift that cap, to have Washington pay 100 percent of all costs over $100 million and permission to take longer than six months to spend the money on emergency repairs.

The state has about $25 million in insurance, including $7.5 million on the Waterbury complex, with a $1 million statewide deductible, according to Spaulding.

The state has already received $5 million in “quick release” funds, from which it is paying the private contractors working to repair roads and bridges, Searles said.

One lawmaker took Searles to task after seeing paving projects continuing on a section of Interstate 89 that was unaffected by the flooding.

“That just boggles my mind,” said state Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington. “People are struggling to get across the state, whether it be Route 9 or Route 4 ... You get out there onto the interstate, which to my knowledge hasn’t seen any damage, and you’ve got people out there paving. That’s the image I’m concerned about.”

Searles said that Vermont had “deficits” in its infrastructure upkeep before Irene hit and that it was neither practical nor logical to have all Agency of Transportation work halt to concentrate on the flood damage.

He said paving contracts were set before the storm and that private workers on them won’t be transferred to the severely-damaged roads and bridges, in part because the flood-repair projects are for shoring up and rebuilding, not paving.

What happens with the Waterbury complex, where about 1,500 state workers have been displaced from the flood damage, remains to be seen. Spaulding’s estimate of up to $20 million is just to address the damage, not refurbish.

The state is still weighing whether to try to rehabilitate those buildings and plans to send out a request for proposals to see whether private entities would be interested in buying them outright or entering into some kind of public-private partnership, Spaulding said.

In any event, some state functions — including the Department of Public Safety — will remain there, he said.

The committee voted Sept. 13 to approve a one-day approval process for the distribution of food, emergency equipment and money that have been donated from all parts of America.

Usually, the governor’s administration submits proposed grants to the committee and it has a month to review them.

The action Sept. 13 means the review period is 24 hours for all grants of up to $100,000.

“The last thing we want is for red tape to stand between flood victims and the aid they need,” said state Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, chairwoman of the committee.

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