Rough Roads: Part 1, Money Makes the Wheel Go Around

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(Host) Rough Roads…

It will be no surprise to you that there are more bumps in the road these days.

A growing number of Vermont’s roads and bridges are in bad shape and the situation is expected to get worse.

All this week, VPR will examine the problems with the roads and bridges and the possibilities for rail.

To get an overview of the problem, VPR’s Bob Kinzel joined House Transportation chairman Richard Westman for a drive around central Vermont.

(Sound of a car starting up)

(Kinzel) Rep. Westman is driving out of Montpelier on Berlin Street. He says this road symbolizes the condition of Vermont’s highway system. It’s full of many cracks and potholes:

(Westman) “The water is going through these cracks into the base disrupting the base underneath this road and will make it more expensive to fix in the future more expensive than it would be now if you just repaved this you’ll have to do major underlying construction if you let this go a few years and we have a lot of roads in this very position.”

(Kinzel) As we turn on a town road outside of Riverton, some of the items on the dashboard of Westman’s Jeep begin to fly around the car as we hit a series of ruts.

(Sound of car going over bumpy road)

(Kinzel) Westman says a lot of town roads are in poor condition because the state makes only small grants available for major repairs- that leaves the burden on local property taxpayers:

(Westman) “That program allows a town the ability to apply once every three years for no more than $150,000 which if you’re doing a major reconstruction project isn’t very much.”

(Kinzel) Even though funds for the state paving program will increase by more than 35 % this year, the projections for the future are alarming.

This year the Agency of Transportation estimates that roughly 10% of all state roads are in very poor condition – in just four years – even with the new money – this figure will jump to 40%.

Westman says this looming crisis is the result of a combination of factors. These include a failure to fully fund paving and maintenance programs during the tough budget years of the 1990s, a dramatic rise in the number of miles driven by Vermonters, and an increase in heavy truck traffic.

Westman notes that the state’s Transportation Fund is running a deficit largely because it’s financed by three revenue sources that don’t keep pace with inflation; the purchase and use tax, transportation related fees and the gas tax.

As he speaks, the condition of the road forces him to swerve to the far left side of the lane:

(Westman) “The gas tax because it’s a flat per gallon amount .hmmm we have a little mud here .(rattle rattle rattle) ..doesn’t go up with inflation and when you buy a more efficient car you drive more miles on the road and do more damage to the roadway and we get less money.”

(Kinzel) When Interstate 89 between Montpelier and Burlington disintegrated last year, many motorists complained that pieces of the road flew up and cracked their windshield.

Westman says there’s no question that the poor condition of many roads is causing significant vehicle damage – he pointed to three dings and deep crack in his own windshield:

(Westman) “I drive the one section of the CIRC in Essex and the pavement there is starting to come up. The ding in this windshield that created the most damage was a piece of pavement coming up off of that road. The repair level to our vehicles is much higher because we aren’t taking care of our roads as well as we should.”

(Kinzel) Currently the state has 533 bridges that are classified as being structurally deficit. Despite the influx of new funds, four years from now the state expects to still have over 400 bridges in this condition.

Westman hopes that Vermont doesn’t join the list of states that have had major bridge collapses in the last 5 years:

(Westman) “New York on the interstate, Connecticut a few years ago had a bridge collapse and people got killed and they did pretty dramatic things I don’t want us to be in that position.”

(Kinzel) Westman thinks many of these problems can be addressed in the next 5 to 10 years if lawmakers are willing to consistently support an increase in transportation spending over this time period.

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Bob Kinzel.

Note: Tomorrow in our Rough Roads series, VPR’s John Dillon looks at two generations of aging bridges.

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