EAST MONTPELIER — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch and Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Sue Minter are urging Congress to pass a long-term transportation spending plan before federal spending authorization expires on July 31, which would put dozens of Vermont projects at risk.
Welch and Minter held a news conference Tuesday at a Route 14 bridge in East Montpelier that intersects with Route 2. The bridge has been deemed structurally deficient and has visible signs of degradation, including at least one hole in the deck offering a view of the water below.
“We in Vermont have bridges that are crumbling,” Welch said. “This bridge next to us is falling apart, and I hate to say that because I don’t want to scare the driving public, but the driving public knows how bad our roads and bridges are.”
In the recent past Congress has passed short-term spending resolutions to keep transportation and infrastructure projects around the country funded. But that approach has made it difficult for states to undertake long-term planning for needed projects. Minter said more than 40 projects totaling about $136 million set to be advertised in the coming weeks are at risk if Congress does not pass funding.
“If we don’t have the authority to spend federal money, they are off the table,” Minter said, also noting that Vermont could foot the bill in the near-term if Congress does not meet the July 31 deadline.
Welch said he and Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wisc., have sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, urging him to use the so-called “Queen of the Hill” strategy to pass a long-term transportation funding plan. It would allow the House to vote on multiple funding options and the proposal with the most votes would be adopted by the House.
Welch said he hopes Boehner will help break prolonged gridlock in the House and pass a long-term funding plan, rather than another “dim-witted, temporary fix.” He said the previous short-term extension allowed corporations to lower their pension obligations, which in turn boosted corporate taxes — a “temporary and irresponsible” solution.
“A confident country, a competent country, will do what needs to be done to keep the roads and the bridges repaired and take the steps that are required to have a modern infrastructure. The thing that mystifies me in Washington is that this, traditionally, has never been a partisan issue. We all have potholes in our roads. We all have bridges that need repair, whether you’re in the most conservative district … or in Vermont,” Welch said.
Some ideas floated in Congress include repatriation of corporate profits, corporate tax reform and boosting the federal gas tax. Welch said he has no favorite funding source. However, collecting taxes on repatriation of corporate profits would provide a five to six year cushion for developing a sustainable funding source, he said.
“The worst thing we can do is come up with yet another short-term solution where we go into the general fund, take money that needs to be spent for education, for National Institute of Health or scientific research, and then use it as a patch to try and get us through a few more months of maintenance of our highways and bridges,” Welch said.
Minter, meanwhile, praised President Barack Obama’s Grow America Act, which would appropriate $475 billion for transportation projects across the country over five years through repatriation and corporate tax reform. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s junior senator and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, has also advocated for funding, she said.
“There are proposals out there. The president put forth a very important proposal,” Minter said. “Sen. Sanders, another plan. A trillion dollar investment. It’s called rebuild America. What we need isn’t just to cobble together and put the duct tape on these old bridges, we actually need to be thinking about the future and especially our economy.”
The country’s infrastructure “used to be the envy of the world,” Minter said. But the U.S. now spends just 2 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure. By comparison, most of Europe spends between 5 and 6 percent, while China spends 9 percent of its GDP, she said.
In Vermont, significant progress has been made on replacing aging bridges, according to Minter. In 2009, she said, 19 percent of Vermont’s bridges were structurally deficient. That has since dropped to 7 percent.
“We have been doing things differently. We have been focusing more on bridges and we’ve been innovating and doing them more quickly and at lower cost,” she said. “We want to keep going, and that’s why we need Congress to act, because we don’t want to slow down.
Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, also called on Boehner to allow long-term funding solutions to be voted on. He said local residents fear crossing the Route 14 bridge.
“Shame on Congress. I dare Speaker Boehner to come here and drive across this bridge. This bridge is a nightmare. People in East Montpelier are afraid to drive across this bridge,” Klein said. “This has got to stop. This is ridiculous, and Americans should not have to potentially pay with their lives to get people to change their minds.”
Wayne Symonds, the state’s bridge engineer, said the span is now inspected every year and remains suitable for traffic.
“Right now the bridge is safe but it is nearing the end of its useful life,” he said.