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The Burlington Free Press - Candidates Disagree on Transportation Remedy

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Candidates disagree on remedy for highways

Nancy Remsen

Vermont's highest-profile candidates for governor agree the state has fallen behind in maintaining its roads and bridges -- but they don't agree on whether there is a crisis or how to remedy the situation.
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With two well-publicized bridge closings in recent months near the homes of Democrat Gaye Symington and independent Anthony Pollina, it's not surprising they see the problem as more serious than does Jim Douglas, the Republican incumbent governor who has had responsibility for transportation spending for the past six years.

Pollina, an early entry into the governor's race, attacked the Douglas administration's record in February. "The under-funding of bridge and road repair is well documented, and the increasing cost of continuing to delay this work will be staggering to taxpayers," Pollina complained, adding, "This is a safety as well as financial problem: a disaster waiting to happen."

In early September, when state inspectors closed an iron truss bridge over the Winooski River in Richmond because of structural weaknesses, Symington drove down from her nearby Jericho home and talked to people whose daily commutes and businesses were disrupted. "Vermonters in the Richmond and Huntington areas are confronting a dramatic example today of the Douglas administration's failure to manage our infrastructure problems," she said.

Douglas defends his record, noting that he has had to make up for years when neither the Legislature nor the previous Democratic administration put sufficient money toward road and bridge maintenance. Since taking office in 2003, he pointed out, he has increased annual spending on paving from $21 million to $55 million. He boosted annual spending on bridges from $14 million to $61 million.

Further, in December of 2006 Douglas' secretary of transportation unveiled the administration's "Road to Affordability," a strategy to change spending priorities to "system preservation" instead of new construction.

The facts

The statistics on roads and bridges provide ammunition for all three candidates.

Take bridges, for example. The state has 2,688 bridges, 21 percent of which were built 80 or more years ago. Based on inspections, the Agency of Transportation has rated 18.5 percent of Vermont's bridges as structurally deficient and 17 percent as functionally obsolete.

Despite these gloomy figures, the agency reports there are fewer bridges closed, replaced with a temporary structure, posted with weight limits or restricted as to speed, vertical clearance or number of vehicles than a decade ago.

"A lot of people think we have many more of these than we've ever had before," said Agency of Transportation spokesman John Zicconi. "I wouldn't say we are making a lot of progress, but we certainly are holding our own."

According to his data, a lot fewer bridges have weight limits -- only 76 compared with 102 in 1997 -- but there are more with other restrictions -- 36 compared with 28. There are about the same number of closed bridges -- a dozen compared to 13 -- and five fewer temporary bridges.

The state maintains 3,200 two-lane miles of highway and monitors the condition of every mile of pavement every two years using a specially equipped van.

The most recent assessment found half in good or fair condition, with the rest rated poor or very poor. As Douglas noted, his administration has tripled the state's investment in paving, but lawmakers -- even members of his own party -- have said spending isn't keeping pace with deterioration.

Last February, Neil Schickner, an analyst with the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Office, provided lawmakers with a report warning that at last year's funding level -- $56.4 million -- the percentage of roads in very poor condition would double in three years, from 21 percent to 43 percent.

The Douglas administration and lawmakers agreed to boost the paving budget to $67.2 million this year. Still, according to Schickner's calculations, if there was $100 million available, the percentage of roads in very poor condition would still increase to 32 percent.

Remedies

Douglas has offered the most conservative solution to fixing the backlog of deteriorating road and bridges.

He promises continued in-house belt-tightening to free up dollars. This includes a policy of no-frill construction and just-in-time delivery of designs when a project has a sure source of money.

He wants to speed up the reduction in transportation-related taxes transferred to the General Fund to support the Department of Public Safety. The current transfer is $33 million, down from $43 million in budget year 2004. He would shrink the transfer amount by $4.5 million a year for each of the next four years.

He's confident general government spending can be pared to make up for this level of reduction. "We will find it," he said. "It is about establishing priorities."

He's willing to bond for some extra capital dollars -- about $10 million a year. That's the amount recommended by the state's Debt Affordability Committee for this year and next. In a dig at his opponents, Douglas said, "There are those who say let's just bond for a gazillion dollars."

Likewise, he doesn't see taxes as an option.

"There are those who want to raise taxes," Douglas said, a reference to remedies he attributes to Symington. "I don't want to do that -- unless all the other ideas I've outlined are insufficient."

Symington and Pollina argue that Douglas' remedies are insufficient. They offer bigger ideas.

Symington embraces the policy of prioritizing maintenance over new construction that Douglas talks about -- but "we're not doing it." She noted that Douglas would still build the next phases of the Bennington Bypass, Circumferential Highway and Morrisville Bypass. "That's hundreds of millions of dollars."

She supports decreasing the amount of transportation-related taxes diverted to public safety.

"But none of this adds up to what we really need to do," Symington said. She and other lawmakers won approval for research by the state treasurer on the implications of aggressive borrowing. The report, outlining bonding options and ways to cover the borrowing costs, is due in November.

Symington said she doesn't advocate an increase in the gasoline tax, although she supported a House bill increasing the tax in 2006. Then lawmakers wanted to raise money to draw down more federal funds they said the Douglas administration was going to leave on the table. Times have changed, Symington said.

Still, she criticizes Douglas' no-tax mantra. Rebuilding the state's road and bridge network "is too important to our economy and we are too far behind not to allow a discussion of all options."

Pollina has promoted a big bonding program since winter and has offered a way to pay for it, too.

He would close a capital gains exemption, which would generate an extra $20 million a year in revenue -- or at least it would have before the recent Wall Street meltdown. Pollina suggests earmarking $5 million a year from this new revenue to cover the cost of bonding for $75 million for road and bridge projects.

Douglas has suggested this might jeopardize the state's bond rating. The higher the state's rating, the lower the interest rate the state pays on borrowed money.

"What is the sense of that good bond rating if you don't use it?" Pollina asked. "The governor is willing to let infrastructure deteriorate because he is so frightened to make an investment. He is causing the cost to multiply. It is incredibly short-sighted.

"With the economy being weak, what we should be doing is putting people to work and investing in infrastructure," Pollina continued. "It's one of the best ways to strengthen the economy. In a sense you are solving two problems."

More advice

Whoever wins on Nov. 4 will quickly have the benefit of a report from the Snelling Center for Government, which has spent the past 18 months talking with the public and leaders about the choices to solve the transportation problem.

The organization ran a conference a week ago with 75 business leaders to get them "to think through preservation options," said Charlie Smith, president. "The object is to identify policy scenarios that address the technical, fiscal and political needs."

The Legislature and the treasurer, but not the Douglas administration, contributed money to help pay for the project, Smith said. The most recent conference had private sponsors.

Smith won't hint at what the recommendations will be except to say "none of them would be brand new." He's remaining mum, he said, to keep the report free of election politics.


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