Welch highlights highway funding dilemma


BENNINGTON -- Funding to repair the aging and crumbling Benmont Avenue bridge is uncertain given the political climate in Congress, according to Vermont's lone House representative.

The bridge was the backdrop used by Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., along with Vermont transportation officials, to talk about the needed for shoring up the federal Highway Trust Fund.

"This is a serious issue that America faces and has real implications for Vermont. The question is, will Congress allow the Highway Trust Fund to go bankrupt? Absent any action from Congress it is going to go bankrupt by the end of the summer or early fall," said Welch.

The trust fund was established in 1953 and has been funded through a federal gas tax, but according to Welch that tax has not been increased since 1993, and Congress has had to authorize several transfers to it from the General Fund. Inflation has also led to a drop in buying power. All this means there is more money leaving the fund than going in.

Welch said the notion of increasing the gas tax does not appear to have much support in Congress, and he fears whatever solution it comes up with will only be a temporary fix.

It will be a challenge, he said, for Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio 8, to handle this issue given opposition to new taxes and fees by members of the Tea Party.

"There's a lot of debate and gridlock about how to do it," said Welch. "I've indicated to Mr. Boehner, the speaker, that potholes don't fix themselves, we've got to fund the trust fund in order for it to be done."

Welch said he will support any reasonable plan to make the trust fund solvent and effective, for without it projects like Bennington's Benmont Avenue bridge will languish, and patchwork will be funded locally.

The bridge is currently safe, said Town Manager Stuart Hurd, but is slated for repair next construction season, assuming federal funding comes through.

Using the fund, the federal government would pay for 80 percent of the cost, the state 15 percent, and the town 5 percent. Hurd said Bennington has already set aside $300,000 over the past few years to cover its match.

Vermont Secretary of Transportation Brian Searles said the project has not been put out to bid yet, but would cost between $2.5 million and $5 million. He said there are hundreds of projects across the state that are dependent on federal funds for completion.

Plans to repair the Benmont Avenue bridge have been in the works for years, said Searles. It's a bridge that all agree needs extensive work and is on both state and federal lists.

"Unfortunately we have a new situation in Washington. Our delegation gets it, but some other members don't. We have, in this bridge, an example of what we're going to see if the Highway Trust Fund problem isn't fixed," he said. "Late July, if it's not fixed, our reimbursement rate goes down by 30 percent. From that point on, if it's not fixed, eventually the fund will run out of money completely and reimbursements will end," said Searles.

Hurd said when construction does begin, the bridge will be one lane for those heading north, while those going south will be sent on a detour. Businesses along Benmont Avenue have been anticipating the project, and the town's plans for a water pipe can not go forward until the bridge is repaired.

Hurd said that during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, the town water line that runs under the Walloomsac River was exposed, and remained that way. The town wants to build a second water line going under the bridge to supply Northside Drive in the event the older pipe is damaged.

Mark Mackintosh, southwestern regional construction engineer for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, said the bridge is 76 years old and shows clear signs of concrete and steel loss, which is a concern for the agency. He said it is inspected regularly and while in poor shape, is safe to travel on.

"This is a dire, completely unacceptable situation," said Welch. "America has to repair America's infrastructure. Our roads and bridges are deteriorating. Vermont has tough, rugged winters and we need the federal government to do its part to provide the funds to Vermont to proceed with its plans to rehabilitate roads and bridges."


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