U.S. Plan Will Fix Area Roads
West Lebanon — There was good news out of Washington this week for Upper Valley officials seeking funding for a number of transportation projects, ranging from a major safety overhaul along Route 12 in Charlestown to the replacement or repair of aging bridges over Vermont rivers in towns such as Strafford and Chelsea.
After years of stymied efforts to address the nation’s aging and congested highways and transit systems, Congress found the sweet spot for passage on Thursday — a five-year, $305 billion bill laden with enough industry favors, parochial projects, safety improvements and union demands to gain overwhelming support.
The bill was approved, 359-65, in the House and 83-6 in the Senate Thursday night.
All seven members of the Vermont and New Hampshire delegations backed the bill, though U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., missed the vote because he was flying to New Hampshire that night for presidential campaign events on Friday.
“This five-year bill will provide funding for important transportation infrastructure projects in New Hampshire like the widening of Interstate 93, and provide states and contractors the certainty they need to plan projects and hire workers,” U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said in a statement. The measure also includes an amendment she backed to renew the Export-Import Bank.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement that the legislation “ensures that Vermont will receive the funding it needs, more than $1.1 billion over the next five years, to allow Vermonters to move forward on infrastructure projects that have been waiting in the wings. In Vermont, the construction season is short and the need is great, and a series of stopgap measures to kick the can down the road was never the right answer. I am pleased there will finally be the stability needed for Vermont, and all states, to move forward to bolster our country’s infrastructure.”
New Hampshire and Vermont transportation officials said passage will help their states proceed with a number of projects on the planning boards.
Among the major projects slated to be bid out in the next year are a $10.3 million proposal to relocate railroad tracks paralleling a narrow stretch of Route 12 next to the Connecticut River in Charlestown and Walpole, N.H., and a $736,000 project to make pedestrian and bicycle improvements along Route 120 in Lebanon.
In Vermont, pending projects in the next two years include the rehabilitation of a bridge along Route 110 in Chelsea over the First Branch of the White River; a replacement of a bridge in Strafford over the West Branch of the Ompompanoosuc River; replacement of the Route 106 bridge over Kedron Brook in Woodstock; and the design and construction of about 2,000 feet of sidewalks and bike lanes along Route 5 in Hartford.
Bill Boynton, the spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, said this was the first long-term federal surface transportation bill to be passed in more than a decade, and that Congress had approved more than 30 short-term extensions since 2009.
“This is great news from the NHDOT’s point of view because of the certainty in anticipated federal funding that the (legislation) offers,” Boynton said via email. “It allows for us to better plan and say when projects are happening, especially for multi-year projects.”
Boynton said it is too early to know details about specific projects, but he said after several years of flat funding from Washington, New Hampshire will see roughly $175 million a year over five years, roughly a $15 million annual increase.
Sanders, who serves on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said he helped win a 5 percent increase in funding for Vermont in the first year and a total increase of 15 percent over five years.
The bill now goes to the White House for President Obama’s signature.
But the measure doesn’t include as much money or last quite as long as many lawmakers and the Obama administration would have liked. Nor does it resolve how to pay for transportation programs in the long term.
Despite that, the 1,300-page bill was hailed by industry and public officials as a major accomplishment that will halt the cycle of last-minute short-term fixes that have kept the federal Highway Trust Fund teetering on the edge of insolvency for much of the past eight years.
Republicans leaders can point to the bill’s passage as evidence of their ability to govern, and Obama can claim progress on addressing the nation’s aging and congested infrastructure, a major goal since the early days of his administration. Lawmakers in both parties praised the bill as a model of bipartisan cooperation and an important step forward.
The bill “proves to the American people that we can get big things done,” said Rep. Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The committee’s senior Democrat, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, called the measure “historic,” but cautioned that “it is a starting point, not the end.”
One hallmark of the bill is the creation of new programs to focus federal aid on eliminating bottlenecks and increasing the capacity of highways designated as major freight corridors. The Transportation Department estimates the volume of freight traffic will increase 45 percent over the next 30 years.
A big shortcoming in the bill, though, is how it’s all financed. The main source of revenue for transportation is the trust fund, which comes mostly from the 18.4-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax. That tax hasn’t been raised since 1993 even though transportation spending has increased. But raising the gas tax is viewed by many lawmakers as too politically risky.
To make up the shortfall, the bill uses about $70 billion in mostly budget gimmicks, including one that would move $53 billion from the Federal Reserve Bank’s capital account to the general treasury. It’s counted as new money on paper, but is actually just a transfer of funds from one government account to another, federal budget experts said.
Other items in the bill also don’t include the means to pay for them, including more than $10 billion over five years for Amtrak and other rail programs, $12 billion for mass transit and $1 billion for vehicle safety programs. The money for those programs remains subject to annual spending decisions by Congress.
Among the bill’s losers are large banks, which would receive lower dividends from the Federal Reserve, with the savings used for transportation programs. Banking officials complained that banks shouldn’t be asked to foot the bill for highways and bridges.
The airline and cruise ship industries complained that their passengers are also being asked to pay for improvements unrelated to their travel. The bill ties customs fees to inflation and uses the increased revenue to offset the bill’s cost. It also directs the sale of 66 millions of barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in order to raise $6.5 billion. The catch is the sales don’t start until 2023 — three years after the transportation bill it helps pay for has expired.
The bill also addresses several concerns raised by a deadly Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia in May. It provides $200 million to help passenger railroads install positive train control technology that accident investigators say could have prevent the derailment had it been in operation. It also raises the liability cap on total damages that can be awarded in such crashes from $200 million to $295 million. The derailment killed eight people and injured nearly 200 others.
The Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents city bus drivers, won a provision requiring the government to direct transit agencies to take steps to protect bus drivers from assault, a growing problem. The Federal Transit Administration is required to consider whether local transit agencies provide bathroom breaks and access to bathrooms for bus drivers when evaluating the safety of the agencies.
Another provision sought by the dairy industry and sponsored by upstate New York, Connecticut and Wisconsin allows trucks hauling milk to exceed federal weight limits for interstate highways in some cases.
Leahy’s office said that the Vermont Democrat, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had helped scuttle several House amendments that would have weakened the Freedom of Information Act, but that the final legislation includes one new FOIA exemption designed to protect the identity of people who blow the whistle about motor vehicle safety issues, and two other exemptions “designed to protect highly sensitive information related to the electric grid.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.