By Dave Gram
A dysfunctional Congress may not make a May 31 deadline for passing a new transportation funding bill, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., told state lawmakers Thursday, but a temporary measure could get Vermont through another road and bridge construction season.
Welch agreed with members of the House and Senate transportation committees that such an outcome would be far from ideal. Such construction projects often take years in planning and execution.
"You can't let contracts if you only have a five-month window for funding," the Democratic lawmaker said.
Welch said he is still hoping to muster support for a comprehensive spending package. He spoke of "a solid majority in Congress who are supportive of a long-term transportation bill."
But he said there are several roadblocks, among them a group of conservative Republicans in Congress who believe the federal government should leave transportation to the states.
Welch, who holds Vermont's lone seat in the U.S. House, said the conservatives are influential beyond their number because the House leadership, led by Speaker John Boehner, has a policy of not bringing legislation up for a vote that does not have strong support from the Republican caucus.
"You've got to get all the votes from one party in order to put it on the floor," Welch said, adding that such a standard works against bipartisan coalition-building. The result, he said, is a great deal of power held by "the just-say-no caucus."
The partisan divide in Washington contrasted sharply with the mood Thursday in Montpelier, where Welch, former president pro tem of the state Senate, got a warm welcome and praise from GOP lawmakers.
"From my perspective and from our county's perspective we have a huge amount of confidence in Congressman Welch," said state Sen. Dustin Degree, R-Franklin. "If there does have to be somebody down there navigating a more partisan environment than what it is here, we're fully confident that Peter has the best interests of us" in mind.
Vermont has been flush with federal transportation funding in recent years, with extra money flowing in as part of the federal stimulus package that followed the Great Recession, and the state having received money to fix roads and bridges washed out in Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
But that era appears already to be coming to an end, said state Rep. Patrick Brennan, R-Colchester and chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
A budget drafted by Brennan's committee has Vermont receiving $354 million in federal dollars in fiscal 2016, with the state adding $231 million. The projected federal portion is down $54 million from the current fiscal year, Brennan said.
Vermont Transportation Secretary Sue Minter said some states already were canceling or postponing construction projects for fear of losing the federal money that was to help pay for them -- a step Vermont is not taking.
Vermont cannot afford to put its short warm-weather construction season on hold Minter said. "But we know there's a great risk ahead." Some is already being felt, she added. Minter noted the state's revenue forecasters downgraded their transportation revenue projection for fiscal 2016 by $6.4 million in January.