Vermont Public Radio - Candidates Weigh in on Transportation Priorities
(Host) The state's Transportation Fund is running a deficit. Vermont's roads and bridges need urgent repair, and some large highway projects remain unfinished.
These and other transportation issues are playing a big role in this year's gubernatorial race. The major candidates have clear differences in transportation priorities - and how to pay for the work.
VPR's John Dillon reports.
(Dillon) Near the end of the VPR gubernatorial debate, Governor Jim Douglas tried to put his Democratic opponent on the spot with a question about commercial and public projects that have strong local support.
(Douglas) "I'd like to ask Gaye another question. Do you support the Circ Highway, the Bennington Bypass and the Wal-Mart in St. Albans?''
(Dillon) The next governor may not control Wal-Mart's plans, but the fate of the two highway projects will be decided by the governor and the Legislature. And both have grown increasingly expensive in a time of declining revenues.
House Speaker Gaye Symington says the state should fix its existing roads and bridges first, before building new highways. She elaborated on that point in an interview.
(Symington) "We are not taking care of the transportation infrastructure. The Richmond bridge had to be closed before people started paying attention. The Middlesex bridge had to start falling in the river before we set up a temporary bridge. We have more structurally deficient bridges in Vermont than all but six states.''
(Dillon) Symington used the Richmond bridge as a visual prop for a recent campaign news conference. She said the Douglas Administration could lose $137 million dollars in federal transportation earmarks because it hasn't come up with a plan to spend it.
Governor Douglas scoffed at that idea. Here's his answer in a recent debate on WCAX Channel 3.
(Douglas) "It's absolutely and utterly false. In fact, reporters tried to find anybody to substantiate the speaker's allegation, and couldn't. The Federal Highway Administration says she's wrong. Our secretary of transportation says she's wrong.''
(Dillon) The money -- much of it was obtained several years ago by Senator Jim Jeffords - is designated for specific projects and it's supposed to be available until the state draws on it.
But the federal transportation fund also faces a growing deficit, and congressional staff members say it's possible that a future Congress could grab back Vermont's unspent share.
Like Symington, Independent candidate Anthony Pollina is skeptical of the Circumferential Highway. He said during the WCAX debate that the project is expensive, and may not do much to solve the county's traffic problem.
(Pollina) "What we need to do is we need to be honest with Vermonters about what we can do and what we should do first, which is fix our roads and bridges. There are businesses that are leaving Vermont now because they are afraid of trucks getting in and out of their locations. Let us also be clear that the studies that I have seen about the Circ Highway, the potential Circ Highway, actually question whether it would actually reduce commuting time or the congestion when it comes down to it.''
(Dillon) Pollina has an ambitious plan to boost transportation spending by $75 million dollars using state revenue bonds that would be paid for by closing an exemption in the capital gains tax.
He's also call for more spending on public transportation.
Governor Douglas says the state needs to stand by its promise to build the Circ and Bennington Bypass. He says the projects are needed for economic development.
For VPR News, I'm John Dillon.