MONTPELIER — A stopgap measure to boost a rapidly dwindling transportation trust fund by Aug. 1 is gaining traction in Congress. If passed, it would prevent Vermont and other states from scuttling thousands of transportation projects.
Vermont transportation officials say about $100 million in transportation infrastructure projects in the state will be scrapped this summer if Congress cannot come together and boost the federal Highway Trust Fund by Aug. 1.
Nearly 40 Vermont projects are at risk if the state does not get the $195 million it is counting on from the federal government. Every state faces a similar dilemma.
The fund is fed by the federal gas tax, which has remained at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. With Americans driving less, and using more efficient vehicles, the tax is not generating enough revenue to keep pace with infrastructure needs and will dry up at the end of the month.
Vermont’s congressional delegation says lawmakers are working on a short-term fix. In Washington, House and Senate committees are crafting competing plans to shore up the fund with an $11 billion stopgap measure, leaving a long-term fix off the table for now.
The House version seeks to extend expiring customs fees on importers, transfer money from another fund for leaking underground storage tanks and change rules on private pension contributions to fund the transportation projects.
The Senate also uses those provisions, but scales back pension changes in favor of seeking better compliance with existing tax laws to make up the difference. House Republicans adamantly oppose the Senate bill.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., speaking Thursday on the Vermont PBS show “Report from Washington,” called it “insanity” that congressional Republicans refuse to consider raising revenue to shore up the highway fund.
“If we do not reinvest in the Highway Trust Fund and get money out to the states, we can lose up to 700,000 decent-paying jobs,” Sanders said.
“So this is pretty crazy,” he said. “These Republicans are obstructing, obstructing, obstructing.”
But Brian Searles, secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Transportation, said he is encouraged by Congressional action this week.
“It appears that they’re really arguing less now about whether this needs to happen, and instead how long this extension should last,” he said.
“That’s a good sign,” Searles said. “Our issues come up toward the end of July and continue into August and we’ve been instructed by U.S. DOT that Vermont will essentially be receiving a reduced federal reimbursement starting in August.”
A long-term solution is needed to keep the fund solvent, Searles said, but Vermont and other states now need an immediate fix to ensure they can make it through the construction season and complete projects to which they have already committed. Those projects typically receive 80 percent funding from the federal government.
“Now we’re in a position where we need both,” Searles said. “We need the short-term (funding) to make it through this construction season and a multi-year … solution so that we can do some planning and not do our planning on a week-to-week or month-to-month basis.”
If Congress does not boost the fund by August, the state will see a significantly lower reimbursement rate, Searles said.
The trust fund is currently relying on weekly revenue, which varies depending on how much driving Americans do.
“What this problem has presented for us is less cash coming in as reimbursement,” he said. “We’re paying our bills, but as of August we’re not going to be reimbursed the full amount. It’s going to go down based on what’s in the trust fund. The trust fund is so low that they’re counting on revenue.”
Searles said ongoing conversations among Democrats and Republicans and the House and Senate “suggests to me that they can work out their differences.”
He said the discussion must then quickly shift to a long-term solution.
“I’m more worried about the source of the revenue in the long-term,” he said. “I want to see a plan for the future that doesn’t rely on gimmicks and patches.”
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said he sees “nothing good” in a short-term fix, calling the current spat “exhibit A of congressional dysfunction.”
“We may avert a default with duct tape and baling wire,” he said. “But in both the House and Senate, the approaches being discussed don’t embrace what we need, and that’s a long-term bill.”
Welch said he hopes Congress will still adopt a permanent solution that will allow states to continue planning for the future.
“They need certainty. The longer we delay, the more projects are put in jeopardy,” he said. “They’ve got projects and they need to know what the funding is.”
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