Neal P. Goswami
The state can afford to construct new projects like the Bennington Bypass and the Circumferential Highway in Chittenden County while maintaining the rest of its transportation infrastructure, Republican Gov. James Douglas said Thursday.
But Douglas' gubernatorial challengers Democrat Gaye Symington and independent Anthony Pollina said Douglas may be promising voters more than the state is able to provide.
Douglas has made the bypass a centerpiece of his campaign for Bennington-area voters. Several campaign mailers have been sent to local residents claiming Douglas supports the bypass, but Symington does not.
During a press conference in Bennington Thursday, Douglas said neither of his opponents support the project, while he has "always been committed to this important project."
"Both of my opponents have strongly opposed the Bennington Bypass, an important pro-growth, job creation transportation project," he said. "This is the kind of example of no-growth, slow-growth attitude that pervades all of their policies."
Both Symington and Pollina said Douglas' assertions about their positions are false.
"I'm not opposed to it, and I've never said I'm opposed to it. He's made a habit of distorting my positions," Pollina said. "What I have said is we have to be careful. We're kidding ourselves if we tell citizens that we can do all of this. I think that's he's really promising way too much if he's telling people that we can afford to do all of this now."
Symington said she has worked with area legislators to keep the project alive.
"I am not opposed to the Bennington Bypass. I fought, in fact, to help the bypass side by side with Rep. Tim Corcoran from Bennington," she said. "The governor should be straightforward with Vermonters about what we can afford and what we cannot afford."
Douglas said the state will be able to afford new construction for projects like the Bennington Bypass, as well as maintain the state's aging infrastructure, through a combination of bonding and federal funds.
"I agree with the fact that we have to focus on what we have now, but I believe that the commitments we've made to the Bennington Bypass, the Morrisville bypass and the circ highway are part of what we've already agreed to," Douglas said. "We have a substantial amount of additional capacity now (to bond), and we will seek support from Uncle Sam to fill in the rest."
Congress may pass a new economic stimulus package in a special session next month, Douglas said, and the package will likely include transportation money for states.
"I think we're going to get some more federal money, and I hope that the Congress will give us the flexibility to allocate it as we see fit," Douglas said. "I have very little doubt that we're going to get some more federal money. I can't believe that everybody in the Congress isn't going to work hard to get the stimulus package."
Pollina said Douglas has allowed the state's infrastructure to "fall behind on maintenance" over the past six years, and is now hoping federal funds will be enough to maintain the state's roads.
"I don't think we should be banking on that. I don't know where he gets that impression in the first place," Pollina said. "It's something we've all heard about, but to make promises based on words from Washington Washington has let us down many times before."
Symington pointed to the state Agency of Transportation's own reports indicating the state was facing serious challenges in keeping up with infrastructure needs. The AOT warned last week that the state is facing at least a $4 billion transportation deficit over the next 20 years, Symington said. It could go as high as $8 billion, depending on inflation.
The transportation fund is based on the state's gasoline tax, and is only going to diminish as cars become more fuel efficient and the state encourages conservation. To suggest that the state can afford to pay for all of the state's needs under the current circumstances is disingenuous, Symington said.
"The agency's own reports make it very clear that we don't have the money to take care of what we have," she said. "Jim Douglas is simply not being straight with Vermonters. I know that Vermonters in Bennington want to hear that we're going to build the Bennington Bypass, so that's what he's going to tell them. I'm trying to be straight with people."