07.23.15

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), On Supporting the Highway Trust Fund

Vermonters, like many Americans, are frustrated.  They are frustrated with short term patches that don’t make real investments in crumbling infrastructure.  They are frustrated with seeing meaningful policy advance, while Congress bickers over how we pay for it – and at what expense to other critical programs. Passing a long-term authorization to make needed improvements to our aging infrastructure is a matter of common sense.  It’s a matter of safety.  And quite frankly, for us in Congress, it’s our job.  After 11 short-term extensions over the course of three years, Congress finally approved MAP-21 in 2012.  Now, two short-term extensions later and faced with another expiration deadline, we have a choice: another patch, or pass a meaningful, long-term transportation authorization that will give our states the ability to build and repair roads, bridges, and byways, to promote rail safety and transit, and to invest in the critical infrastructure that supports our cities and towns, enables interstate and intrastate commerce, and creates jobs for American workers. The time to pass a plan for long term transportation funding is now.

Vermonters take great pride in our historic downtowns and small communities. In our cities and towns, we have a culture of getting things done – and finding a way to accomplish our shared goals. But, when those shared goals rely largely on a federal funding stream that is unreliable at best and uncertain at worst, it makes it impossible to double down on the investments needed to keep the cars, buses, and trucks moving on our roads.

As much as we invest in bridges and roads overseas, we must do so right here at home.  Look at this bridge, located in East Montpelier, Vermont.  Built in 1936, it is in dire need of repair.  Weather, the sometimes harsh Vermont climate, age and traffic volume – more than 4400 vehicles cross it per day, 10 percent of which are trucks – have led to the deterioration of the bridge.  It is one of nearly 300 long and short bridges in Vermont that have been deemed structurally deficient.  The East Montpelier Bridge remains open – for now – and will be replaced in 2018, with a price tag of $7.3 million.  This is an issue of safety.  This is an issue of economic certainty.  It’s a common sense investment that has been delayed far too long, because resources are far too scarce.

We all agree that a long-term transportation bill means safe bridges, paved roads, and completed railways.  But it also encourages innovative projects that incorporate public health, environmental, and social incentives. Look no further than Burlington, Vermont.

A picturesque town nestled on the shores of Lake Champlain, it is home to a variety of innovative entrepreneurs and businesses, from high-tech hubs to specialty food producers. As our businesses and communities grow, Vermonters depend on safe and reliable modes of transportation keep them connected.

Church Street is a pedestrian-only street that welcomes locals and visitors to enjoy the many vibrant shops and restaurants. As businesses begin to sprawl beyond the limits of Church Street and settle into new homes along Pine Street, the city has invested in safe modes of travel to ensure accessibility. The Bike Path Rehabilitation Project and the Safe Streets Collaborative are projects that consider the needs of the community as a whole – either in a vehicle, on foot, or pedaling.

 “Main Street,” the heart of any Vermont downtown, is home to small businesses and services such as post offices, groceries stores, medical offices, and banks. In a rural state like Vermont, investing in our infrastructure extends beyond bridges and roads.  It is sidewalk repair.  It is establishing crosswalks.  It is widening roads to provide for parking.  It is installing such basic things as refuse receptacles, street lighting, and landscaping. After many years of economic decline in downtown Barre, the city’s Main Street was left with empty store fronts and lonely streets. The community introduced the “Big Dig” – a multi-year effort to revitalize Main Street and City Hall Park. With funding sourced from Downtown Transportation Grants and Federal funding sourced through the Agency of Transportation, 200 state employees were able to relocate into a new office building in the heart of downtown. 

Just look at these before and after photographs.  The differences are stark.  These are the kinds of Federal investments, coupled with investments from states and towns, that can revitalize communities across the country.  This project brought life back into Main Street. Businesses filled vacant office spaces, restaurants opened their doors, and the sidewalks welcomed locals and visitors alike. The transportation funding went beyond just improving the physical infrastructure; it was an investment in the health and economy of the community.

The Highway Trust Fund is not just about infrastructure; it’s about jobs – jobs that can’t be shipped overseas.  Earlier this year, I met with Jeff Tucker, President of Dubois & King.  D&K is a Vermont-owned and based consulting engineering firm, employing approximately 100-people, including about 80 Vermonters.  Jeff’s frustration was clear: short-term Highway Trust Fund extensions paralyze the ability of states and municipalities to plan. Jeff’s company provides high quality engineering jobs with an average annual salary of over $71,000.  These jobs come with full benefits – health care, paid vacation, sick and holiday paid time off and retirement packages. A significant portion of his business includes transportation-related engineering projects that originate from the Vermont Agency of Transportation. The Vermont Agency of Transportation creates a statewide plan based on the State’s known Federal transportation funding share – something the Agency has not been able to count on in a long time. There are thousands more examples of businesses around the country hampered in the same way. In a state like Vermont, a short construction season paired with a short-term funding stream is a terrible combination, for both the state and the companies that provide these services.

Now, the Senate is debating how to move forward with a long-term investment in our roads, bridges, and railways.  This is an important debate.  There is a lot about this policy proposal that I support.  I share the concerns, however, of many that it will undermine the safety of riders, bikers, and pedestrians.  The policy is not perfect, but how we pay for it should also be considered.  The Highway Trust Fund has been supported for the most part by a user-fee driven system.  Our roads and byways need our attention, but a long term extension of this authorization, paid for by robbing from other critical programs, is as unsustainable as a network of short-term patches.

America is starving for real, certain infrastructure investment.  The Highway Trust Fund cannot limp forward on a continued series of short-term extensions.  Our country’s progress is being stalled, and it is time we start building for our future. 

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