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Officials Weigh In on Future of Transportation Dollars
- By Ben Carlson
Above: The panel (clockwise from top left) Assistant/MPO Director for the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission (CCRPC) Michele Boomhower, FHWA VT District Administrator Matthew Hake, Burlington City Council President Joan Shannon, and VT Secretary of Transportation Brian Searles
Below: Sec. Brian Searles answers a question during “The Future of Transportation Funding in Vermont” panel
From the federal to local level, the funding of our transportation system is critical to supporting infrastructure, economic development and social goals, but serious funding shortages are forecast in the coming years. On Tuesday, December 4th, the Transportation Research Center convened a panel of officials to discuss this problem and take questions at a public event for the last meeting of the TRC graduate course “Critical Issues in Transportation”. Panelists included City Council President Joan Shannon, Assistant/MPO Director for the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission (CCRPC) Michele Boomhower, Vermont Secretary of Transportation Brian Searles, and Administrator for the Vermont Division of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Matthew Hake. With questions from TRC-associated Assistant Professor Brian Lee, the class of graduate students, and the public, panelists offered perspectives based on a range in experience, position, and outlook on the future of funding for our transportation systems.
FHWA Division Administrator Hake explained his work as helping the state follow the guidelines associated with federal funds, while allowing the state freedom of where it spends funds within those guidelines. At the federal level, there are major concerns about the viability of the Highway Trust Fund to continue funding transportation as gas tax revenues decline. In addition, there is uncertainty over what legislation will follow MAP-21, the most recent transportation authorization act, which lasts only two years, compared to other acts of six years, which allowed for plans with a longer horizon.
Assistant/MPO Director for the CCRPC Boomhower focused on understanding the long-term prospects as her organization is finishing producing a regional transportation plan for 2035. The group expects maintenance costs to be around $750 million in 25 years, while funds available would total $1.1 billion. This would leave $310 million for new projects, but the demand for new projects, totaling $850 million, greatly exceeds that amount. New prioritization criteria is needed to ensure the most essential projects are covered. City Council President Shannon, meanwhile, offered the most optimism when viewing the situation from the very local level, noting that Burlington voters recently approved measures to provide bike path funding for repair and future maintenance. She also indicated that, looking to the future through a political lens, it was heartening to see what she called a political “alignment” between the politics of the Mayor, Governor, and President that she sees as critical to moving forward on stalled projects. She noted, however, that increasing funds for improvements requires new revenue and new major projects, even with significant federal contribution, are difficult for the city to afford.
Secretary Searles, who oversees the state transportation system and its 1,300 employees, focused on how the state must make the most of a transportation system with limited funds. He explained that the work in coming years will come from the direction of local communities, who must decide what we want from our transportation system and how much we are willing to pay for it. The state agency is currently focused on preparing for the future by improving public transit and rail and advancing strategies to decrease vehicle miles traveled (VMT), particularly with single occupancy vehicles (SOV). Searles noted, however, that while new options are being examined for state revenue, Vermont does not have the ability to make up the $200 million annual funding gap it now faces and if the gap is to be closed, this will require federal solutions.
Panelists offered great insight into the future of transportation funding at all levels and provided input on means of addressing this issue that faces so much future uncertainty and many challenges. This event was filmed by Channel 17 TV.