Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Transportation-HUD Appropriations Bill And Vermont's Disaster Recovery Needs

Remarks As Prepared For Delivery

I am encouraged by the progress made on the Transportation-HUD Appropriations Bill, which the Senate has now approved.  In addition to funding our Nation’s ongoing transportation infrastructure investments, this legislation also includes crucial emergency disaster funding for Vermont and other states struggling to recover from Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene and other natural disasters. 

This bill is part of the response needed from Congress by thousands of Vermonters and millions of other Americans.  It is vital not only for the economy of Vermont and other states whose roads and bridges were decimated by this storm, but also for the Nation’s economy.

I thank and commend Chairman Murray and Ranking Member Collins for their hard work and dedication toward ensuring appropriate funding for disaster relief, particularly in Irene’s aftermath.

For our small state of Vermont, Irene was devastating.  As a lifelong Vermonter, never before have I seen destruction of this magnitude.  The flash flooding caused by the storm destroyed homes, farms, businesses, bridges and roads.  It simply washed away many of these roads and structures.  With repair costs estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, our state is stretched to the limit and needs the traditional helping hand of federal disaster recovery aid to help those whose lives have been upturned.

This bill is an essential part of the work that Congress should be doing in response to major event like Irene and the imperative of pulling together as a Nation to heal these wounds.

Since the Senate reconvened after Labor Day, this bill and other disaster relief legislation have been top priorities for Vermont and for many other states.  Week by week, we have made progress, overcoming a series of legislative obstacles.  One by one, we have been able to turn the lights from red to green in a legislative process that this year has become unduly cumbersome and unresponsive. The progress that has been achieved is a testament to the determination of many in this body who have been willing to set aside ideological imperatives and partisan differences to accomplish the work that the American people, and our constituents, expect from their government.

In Vermont and other New England states, winter is not just on the horizon, it is on our doorstep.  More than a foot of snow arrived in some parts of our state last weekend. Time is a significant factor in the repair of damaged or destroyed roads and bridges, and time is slipping away.    

Roads and bridges are the circulatory system for commerce, for personal mobility – for the daily lives of living, breathing communities and their citizens. 

With many of our Federal aid disaster programs underfunded as they are, I am especially pleased this bill contains the $1.9 billion we included to replenish the Federal Highway Disaster Relief fund, which will help to rebuild Vermont’s vital roadways.  These roadways are critical to distributing aid, rebuilding our economy and serving as the lifelines to small communities.  It is of the utmost importance that federal aid reaches Vermont sooner rather than later, as our winters can be extremely harsh, making these rebuilding efforts nearly impossible for much of the year. 

After talking to Governor Shumlin, Senator Sanders, Congressmen Welch, community leaders and others across Vermont, it has become clear that – given the mammoth destruction of this storm -- certain waivers are needed to allow states to access funds for repair work they need without untenable burdens for repairs.  These waivers are essential to ensure that Vermont and other states can promptly design and begin emergency and permanent repairs.  I hope that these provisions will be preserved in conference negotiations with the other body. 

This bill and its investments in America’s crumbling and damaged roads and bridges is a crucial step, and one of several that are needed for our economic recovery and to pave the way toward economic health and vitality.  I also strongly support the transportation jobs bill that will come before the Senate in the days ahead, which would restore more crumbling roads and bridges and get people back to work.

I am also pleased that this legislation includes emergency Community Development Block Grant funding.  Currently, HUD has no funding available and is unable to address the housing needs of Vermonters affected by both Hurricane Irene and the flooding this past spring. 

Vermonters are incredibly resilient and continue to demonstrate enormous resolve in the wake of Hurricane Irene, but they desperately need the same federal assistance that Vermonters have supported to help their fellow Americans facing similar disasters.  While the subcommittee has included $400 million in supplemental CDBG funds to aid communities impacted by disasters this year, I remain concerned that this level of funding will not meet the needs facing the communities in the 48 states recovering from disasters.

These disaster recovery programs are woefully underfunded, matched against the real and pressing needs we face.  The Federal Highway Administration has a $2 billion backlog for emergency relief funding. 

As we move forward, it is my hope that we can continue to work together and bolster the emergency disaster funding for these important programs so that communities in all states recovering from disasters can receive the help they need to rebuild their lives.

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