How is Vermont going to maintain, let alone improve, its highway system over the next ten or twenty years? That question has been brought to center stage by the collapse of the interstate bridge in Minnesota a month ago.
The Federal Highway Administration objectively rates each state on the condition of its bridges. By its standards, one out of six Vermont bridges is rated structurally deficient.
The Reason Foundations 2007 Report on the Performance of State Highway Systems, using a broader definition of deficient, rates the condition of Vermont bridges 44th among the states. The same report finds that Vermont ranks 46th in the condition of its rural primary road pavement, and 37th in the overall cost effectiveness of its highway program. This latter ranking reflects a drop of 13 places since 1998, the largest drop of any state.
This fiscal year Vermont plans to spend $400 million on transportation. The state share ($196 million) of this spending comes from three main sources: motor fuel taxes, license fees, and two thirds of the purchase and use tax. (The 2003 legislature diverted the remaining one third 2% of a vehicles sale price to fund education property tax rebates under Act 68.)
The Agency of Transportation projects on the order of a $150 million annual shortfall, between its expected revenues and what it would cost to maintain and repair Vermonts existing highways, plus repair our structurally deficient bridges over the next decade. Every year that that shortfall is not addressed, it will grow.
Uncle Sam is not the solution. Unless Congress comes up with new money, the Federal Highway Trust Fund will run dry in 2009. The federal gas tax (now 18.3 cents per gallon) has remained unchanged since 1993, but Congress is loath to raise gas taxes when voters are screaming about $3 a gallon gas.