Gas tax hike nears; seen as a painful imperative
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | April 28,2013
MONTPELIER — By the middle of this week, the transportation bill about to be signed into law by Gov. Peter Shumlin will have added nearly six cents per gallon to the price of unleaded gas.
Opponents of the gas tax — including a conservative super PAC hammering the Democrats who voted for it — have focused intently on what the new surcharge is going to cost. State transportation officials, meanwhile, are far more concerned with what the money will buy.
Documents prepared by the Agency of Transportation in December specify the dozens of projects that would have fallen by the wayside this year if lawmakers had rejected the Shumlin administration’s revenue-generating proposal.
From $1.7 million of resurfacing on Routes 4 and 7 in Rutland City to the replacement of Bridge 208 over Gold Brook in Stowe, more than $100 million in construction projects, state officials say, would have been delayed due to lack of funds.
“The biggest issue for us is losing momentum on overall improvements in the system,” Transportation Secretary Brian Searles said last week. “This would not only have stopped us in our tracks, but we would have actually lost ground.”
The list provided by Searles outlines 41 specific projects that would have been delayed by a year or more had the gas tax increase (and the $11 million in bonding to go with it) not been used to generate $36 million over the next year.
The money will prevent Vermont from sending $70 million back to the federal government for lack of matching funds.
In addition to postponing work on specific projects, the agency would have slashed $4 million from its budget for mowing, leveling and patching, cut equipment purchases at the central garage by $2.2 million, and eliminated a $440,000 grant used to help towns improve back roads projects.
The cuts also included the elimination of Amtrak’s Ethan Allen route — it would have been replaced with a bus service, under the agency plan — and a $1 million cut to the large-culvert replacement budget.
Searles said lawmakers would have likely used their legislative discretion to alter the list in places. But for each project lawmakers wanted to save from postponement, Searles said, fiscal realities would have demanded they relegate a project of equal cost to the chopping block.
Sen. Dick Mazza, chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation, was among those to voice resistance to the gas tax at the outset of the 2013 legislative session. Once Searles used the spreadsheet to illustrate the depth of the shortfall, Mazza said, he began to realize the gravity of the situation.
The state transportation revenue woes stem largely from a years-long decline in gasoline consumption.
“There was just no place to go in the budget to find the money we’d need to avoid leaving federal money on the table, and leaving money on the table, for all of us, just was not an option,” said Mazza, a Grand Isle Democrat.
Mazza said lawmakers could have skimmed from the $50 million pool of money used to fund town programs. Since it’s a line item that goes unmatched by the federal government, Mazza said, lawmakers could have halved the appropriation, redirected the money to federal-eligible projects, and avoided leaving federal money on the table without raising the gas tax.
“But that pressure then is only going to show up in people’s property taxes,” Mazza said. “Because the towns still need to get those projects done, and so they’re just going to put them in the municipal budgets instead.”
Maintenance is the other area of the agency funded purely by state revenues. But Mazza said lawmakers weren’t about to compromise the agency’s ability to conduct things like basic snow removal. “Nobody in this building wants to raise the gas tax,” Mazza said. “But that’s just the situation we’re in.”
Searles said the impacts of cutting a $100 million hole in the transportation fund — about 15 percent of the overall budget — would have been perceptible.
“Closure to our bridges is rare now, and we don’t even like to let our bridge ratings get to the point where we’re even close to having an emergency closure,” Searles said. “But a hole of this size in the budget would have put us in a position where that would become more likely.”
Searles said the reductions would have also slowed the recovery from Tropical Storm Irene. Since the federal emergency recovery funds aren’t at risk of revocation if they go unused this year, according to Searles, the state would have diverted the state match away from those projects and toward ones for which the federal assistance would expire after fiscal year 2014.
The move would have delayed more than $22 million in Irene-related work, including corridor-improvement projects along Route 100, Route 4 and Route 12A.
Delays to paving, bridge and culvert projects would have postponed planned improvements in nearly every corner of the state, from the $5 million resurfacing of Route 2 between Waterbury and Bolton, to the replacement of the River Street bridge over the Otter Creek in Rutland City.
While political attacks over the gas tax will likely follow Democrats well into the 2014 election cycle, Gov. Peter Shumlin last week didn’t seen worried.
“Vermonters are the wisest people on earth — they get it,” Shumlin said. “The last thing anyone wants to do … is see gas prices go up. But when you look at the choice of what happens if we don’t bring in those federal dollars, it’s a pretty bleak choice.”