In Congress, Vermont’s Job One After Irene Is Rebuilding Our Transportation Network

By:  Senator Patrick Leahy

Of all the body blows we suffered when Irene raked our state from border to border, repairing the damage to our roads, bridges and rail lines is one of our most urgent priorities.  It also is the costliest one. 

The huge expense of mending our transportation network is well beyond the ability of a small state like ours.  As we tallied the destruction, it quickly became clear that Vermont will need far more federal help than is now in the pipeline. 

In the Senate Appropriations Committee, where Vermont’s disaster recovery needs have been my top priority, I have worked to add $1.9  billion to replenish the depleted emergency road construction fund and to write cost waivers for Vermont similar to those offered to other states coping with earlier disasters on this scale.  These provisions together would save Vermont many tens of millions of dollars in road repair costs.

These cost allocation changes would allow reimbursement to Vermont above the current $100 million per-state limit on federal emergency highway repair funds.  Given the severe damage from Irene, Vermont’s repair costs are expected to exceed that cap.  Adjustments to this cap have been made after other major natural disasters, like Hurricanes Katrina and Andrew and tornadoes in the South. 

A second waiver I added would let Vermont fully recover payments for emergency repairs beyond the current limit of 180 days, given that snow is already on the ground in some parts of our state.  Also in the bill is a fix I added to permanently move heavy trucks from smaller Vermont roads to the Interstate highways, to reduce the local burden as these trucks rumble through Vermont communities.  

In the weeks since the storm we have made long strides toward meeting Vermont’s pressing transportation repair needs.  Though it is an ongoing challenge this year to overcome the general obstructionism in Congress, one by one we have been able to turn the lights from red to green in the legislative process.  On Nov. 1 the Senate approved this bill in a strong vote of 69 to 30.  Next are negotiations with the House, which has not included these Vermont provisions in its version of the transportation budget bill.  I will continue to work with Governor Shumlin, Senator Sanders and Congressman Welch to ensure Vermont’s needs are met in the final bill.

Irene will enter the history books alongside the horrific floods of 1927, when another tropical storm swept through our state, killing 84 and washing away 1285 miles of roads and rail lines and scores of homes and buildings.  It carried away four of Fairfax’s five covered bridges.  A section between Jeffersonville and Johnson was said to resemble the World War I battlefields of France.  That storm delivered such a massive blow that it changed the way transportation was handled in Vermont, shifting responsibility from the local to the state level.

The national government then also helped our state’s recovery, as it should.  We are the UNITED States of America.  The American people come together in times like this, just as Vermonters have always been among the helping hands extended to other states in their times of need.

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(Patrick Leahy, U.S. senator from Vermont, is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and of its Transportation Subcommittee.)