Lawmakers divided over road and bridge repair

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(Host) Vermont lawmakers are divided over the best way to pay for road and bridge repair.

House Republicans have joined Governor Jim Douglas to ask the Legislature to reject a gas tax.

But supporters say Vermont needs to find a sustainable funding source to fix its crumbling transportation infrastructure.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) You could call it the politics of paving.

House Republicans lined up at a Statehouse news conference to denounce a 4 cent-a-gallon gas tax passed earlier by the Democratically controlled House.

David Sunderland of Rutland Town is the Republican minority whip.

(Sunderland) “Opting for tax increases instead of budget tightening in this bill, the House of Representatives on a largely partisan vote raided the household budgets of all Vermonters and passed the buck on to them.”

(Dillon) Sunderland is pleased that the Senate rejected the gas tax. The Senate decided to raise the money with transportation-related fees and with $7 million dollars in one-time surplus funds.

Governor Douglas also rejects the idea of higher taxes. He says people are already feeling the pinch of high gas prices.

(Douglas) “In two weeks, the price of a gallon of gas went up 17 cents – looks like it’s even higher today as I drove into Montpelier. This is incredibly high. And as I talk to Vermonters, and talk about the gas tax proposal that the House passed that all those Democrats voted for, they’re strongly against it.”

(Dillon) But others point out that the money to pay for road and bridge work has to come from somewhere. Steve Jeffrey is executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. He warns that property taxes may have to go up if the state doesn’t find a new revenue source for the roads.

(Jeffrey) “We maintain 90% of the state highway system at the town level. There’s a significant burden there. And if we don’t get it from the gas tax, we’re going to get it from the property tax. Or the work it’s not going to be done at all. So there’s not many choices that Vermonters have on this issue.”

(Dillon) While most House Republicans are opposed to the gas tax, the chairman of the Transportation Committee, Republican Richard Westman, supports the plan. Westman says he’s open to alternatives, but he says the funding source has to be there for the long-term.

(Westman) “Are fuel taxes the place that we’re wedded to? Absolutely not. But what I think what we’re wedded to is the fact that we need sustainable money over the foreseeable future to begin to attack this problem. Because if we don’t begin to attack this problem in two or three years, the condition of our pavement, everybody is going to see it, and people will be clamoring.”

(Dillon) The state needs to find new transportation money both to match an increase in federal funds, and to catch up with road work that’s been neglected over the years.

According to House Speaker Gaye Symington, the gas tax increase would cost a family with two cars about $46 if they drive about 30,000 miles a year.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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