4.1.2016 – The Transportation Bill, Education Yield, and Capital Bill
Again this week, we spent many hours on the Floor of the House with bills that are important to the running of the State including the Transportation Bill, also known as the “T-Bill”, along with the bill that funds it, the Education Yield Bill, and the Capital Bill.
The T-Bill determines where our transportation budget money will be spent and represents a modest 2% increase over last year. This year, we will spend $618 million on our transportation system, which includes $331million in federal funds, $282 million in state funds, and $4.8 million in local or other funds.
Despite the fact that federal funds have decreased slightly this year, a new five-year federal transportation funding law called Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act is beginning. While we no longer benefit from the ear-mark legacy of Sen. Jim Jeffords, for our size we continue to receive a somewhat larger share of the national transportation money.
Of great importance to local towns is the money available for paving and bridges. More than a decade ago, we realized that an alarming percentage of our roads were in either “poor” or “very poor” condition. At that time, we began to focus on improving road conditions for, at least, a couple of reasons. We knew that if we let our infrastructure deteriorate too far, we would have to replace it rather than just repair it at a much greater cost. We also recognized that a good transportation infrastructure is vital to a thriving economy. If our roads aren’t good, no one will want to travel on them. I remember one anecdote of a town in the Northeast Kingdom that couldn’t take delivery of beer in bottles because the roads were so bad!
An additional $11.1 million has been added to the paving budget, which represents an 11% increase over last year in order to improve more than 200 miles of state highway.
Another past area of concern is our bridges. A decade or more ago, many of them were in rough shape and posed a similar problem to that of our roads – either we would repair them fairly quickly or face the much more expensive prospect of replacing them. Then Tropical Storm Irene came along and called the question. Many of the bridge projects that resulted from Irene have been completed so there will be a 10% decrease in bridge spending. We will, however, be spending 20% more on interstate bridges with an increase of $9 million in that category.
There are a number of spending areas that encourage a decrease in the use of personal vehicles. Given that our carbon footprint is caused mostly by transportation and home heating, these are good things in which to invest. Despite the fact that fuel prices dropped dramatically, last year public transit ridership continued to grow to a little under five million in Vermont. Since this is an area where we would like to see growth, there is a 15% increase in the public transit budget.
Another area where we have seen increased participation is in the use of Park-and-Ride facilities. The one in Richmond has been enlarged several times over the last few years due to demand, which has decreased the traffic into Burlington. A new Park-and-Ride facility will be built at Exit 12 on Interstate 89, which is the Taft’s Corner exit. Having fought my way through traffic on Friday in South Burlington on route to my granddaughter’s birthday party, my judgment is that this is a worthy investment! The good news is that there are seven more projects under design.
We are making additional investments in our railroads because they are so cost-effective at moving people and freight. We will spend $33.9 million to match federal funds including the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant. One area of particular focus will be the Rutland to Burlington tracks that are owned by the state in order to accommodate higher speeds for freight trains, as well as the Amtrak Ethan Allen Express service to Burlington.
The T-Bill also includes language that will, hopefully, make traveling on streets and highways safer for people on foot, bicycles, or in wheelchairs. Automobiles would be required to stay at least four feet away from anyone in this category known as “vulnerable users”. They would also have to yield to a vulnerable user who is on their right when the motorist is making a right-hand turn, which, frankly, I thought was already the law.
Another area that is more of a tourist/health investment is in the Bicycle/Pedestrian Program. Additional money will be spent on thirty-five different projects around the state including work on the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail and the Delaware and Hudson Rail Trail.
The T-Bill passed easily though some representatives voted for the bill without supporting the accompanying funding package, which, in my book, negates their ability to claim that they supported these investments.
Every year, the House Ways and Means and Education Committees work together to make recommendations about statewide education tax rates. Until recently, the tax rate fluctuated but a decision was made to set the statewide education residential tax rate at $1.00 and adjust other factors accordingly. The bill passed this week set the non-residential property tax rate at $1.53, down slightly, and what we are now calling the “yield” at $9701. We used to call the yield “base education spending” or the “block grant”.
Other details include the maintenance of the excess spending threshold at 121% of statewide average spending until 2020 at which point it will be lowered to 119%. Importantly, it assures a process by which transfers will be made from the General Fund to cover the total amount of education expenses, eliminating the unfunded mandate issue.
The Capital Bill, which funds the “bricks and mortar” projects in the state passed easily. Recently, we instituted a two-year budgeting process for capital expenses so this year, in fact, was a budget adjustment.