Testimony of Brian R. Searles
Secretary of Transportation State of Vermont
Presented on Tuesday, August 20, 2002
Before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
at the State House in Montpelier, VT.
Good morning and welcome to Vermont.
My name is Brian R. Searles and I am the Secretary of the Agency of Transportation for the State of Vermont. Let me begin by thanking; Sen. Jeffords for holding this committee hearing in Vermont and for the chance to talk about the challenges and opportunities that are unique to rural transportation.
Let me also welcome Sen. Bob Smith, our neighbor from New Hampshire, and U.S. Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson to our fine state, and thank them for their willingness to come to Vermont.
I would like to personally thank both Sen. Jeffords and Sen. Smith for their efforts restoring BABA funding in the current budget process.
I would also like to welcome Mr. Ray Burton, a member of the Governor's Executive Council, who will testify on behalf of the State of New Hampshire.
Mr. John Horsley, the Executive Director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), was unable to attend today's hearing, and asked me to make a few brief comments on behalf of AASHTO and its member states across the country.
Were he able to be here Mr. Horsley would say that rural two-lane safety is a concern for AASHTO members. The General Accounting Office recently reported that although 40 percent of all vehicle miles are traveled on rural roads, 60 per cent of traffic fatalities in 1999 occurred on rural roads. Funding should be increased to improve safety of rural roads for both state and local roads. AASHTO urges that the highway program be increased over six years to $41 billion annually. From this an additional $1 billion annually should be dedicated to safety.
Rural transit. AASHTO's Bottom Line Report documents the need to double the current investment in rural transit, especially to meet the needs of the growing number of elderly residents, who can no longer drive, but still need access to health care and other services.
Transportation Enhancements. AASHTO supports the continued dedication of a 10 percent setaside of STP funds to support transportation enhancements, which so far have benefited over 14,000 communities nationwide. We urge further simplification of the program to make it easier for local governments to apply and advance payment rather than cost reimbursement as the basis for conveying funds to local governments.
Diversity. The needs of Vermont are important and special, but different from those in New Hampshire and those in other states. AASHTO believes the national program should be crafted in a way that respects the diversity of the various states and allows them to define approaches which best meet their needs.
And lastly, AASHTO believes we must grow the program. To meet the nation's safety, security, preservation and capacity needs for highway and transit will require a significant increase in resources. We urge the Senate to take a close look at the financing proposal of AASHTO, which outlines a way making; it possible to fund a highway program which increases from $34 billion to $41 billion from FY 2004 to FY 2009, and a transit program which increases from $7.5 billion to $10 billion.
That concludes the remarks on behalf of Mr. Horsley.
Let me return to my own testimony.
By many measures Vermont is the most rural state in the nation, a collection of 251 cities, towns and unorganized gores that dot the hillsides and valleys of this mountainous state. We occupy an area larger than New Jersey with a population (608,827) that is smaller than many mid-sized cities across the nation. We have about 15,262 miles of public roads, 57-percent of which are unpaved. I mention these facts because transportation management is different in rural areas than urban areas, and while we have a strong interest in all modes of transportation, our topography and population distribution often limit our opportunities.
Vermont and other rural areas across the Northeast are heavily dependent on travel and tourism. Because Vermont is located within a few hours drive of about 50 million people, the regions highway system is an important conduit for what amounts to about 25 percent of the state's overall economy.
During the past few years new information has emerged from several studies describing travel patterns and freight flow to and from rural New England. (These studies include the Vermont Statewide Freight Study prepared by VTrans; Passenger Travel in the I-95 Corridor Coalition Region prepared by the Intermodal Program Track Committee of the I-95 Coalition; Rural Mobility Issues - - Understanding the 1-95 Coalition Region by Matt Coogan; and Truck Freight Crossing the Canada-U.S. Border, prepared by the Eastern Border Transportation Coalition.) The studies show heavy flows of traffic between rural areas and adjacent metro areas, and have provided us with a new understanding of the interdependence of rural and metropolitan areas in the northeast.
We know that rural travelers are much more dependent on highways than other modes of transportation and as a result transportation management is different in rural areas than in urban areas. Where urban transportation issues generally relate to congestion
management, short trips to work, shopping or amenities, in rural areas the percentage of long distance trips is higher, congestion is spotty, and providing accurate and timely traveler information is more important than congestion management.
While it is true we are a very rural state and much of our travel is by single occupancy vehicle, we also have continuing needs for effective public transit. Admittedly, our public transit delivery systems look very different than those in more urban areas. We do have traditional fixed route bus systems in our "urban" areas and even a commuter rail system in Chittenden County. However, much of our public transit service is provided by less traditional means such as deviated route and demand responsive operations. Indeed, a significant need for rural mobility is served in Vermont by a network of volunteer drivers providing these essential services to members of the community. The need for these services will likely explode in all areas as the baby boom generation ages. In my judgment, attention needs to be focused on the administrative operations surrounding the delivery of these programs.
Safety considerations are different in rural areas than urban areas. As John Horsley noted, about 60 percent of all fatal crashes occur in rural areas, where it is much more difficult to get crash victims to emergency care within the "golden hour" due to sparse communication infrastructure and a more dispersed emergency responders. A new source of funding is needed across the board to help address safety issues on rural roads. Weather sometimes has an increased significance in rural areas because severe weather can close down rural routes or cause significant delays. Rural agencies must keep many miles of transportation infrastructure functioning with comparatively thin-spread resources.
Here in Vermont the environment is an important aspect of our quality of life. We must continue to work together - - the states, the U.S. DOT, and the Congress - - to improve the stewardship of our environment. We must continue to look at ways to continue to speed up projects. I believe the environmental process can be made better with better results for our environment and project schedules.
I mention these points because the majority of the land area in Vermont and the northeast is rural - - 72 percent of the land area in the northeast has no metropolitan population areas of 250,000 or above. Yet 28 percent of the population in the northeast live in rural areas.
As I said earlier, Vermont is a small state with limited resources. The state owns and operates 10 small, regional airports, and owns about half of the 740 miles of railroad tracks that crisscross the state. We believe rail will play an increasing role in our transportation future, both in the movement of passengers and freight. If we are to grow our rail program we must deal with rail-highway crossings. Grade separation is key in order to achieve higher speed rail and safety. However, grade separation is costly and here in Vermont beyond our reach without federal assistance.
Our ability to raise revenues for transportation projects is limited by our population and commercial base, and consequently we rely heavily on federal funding sources. Our total transportation budget for fiscal 2003 is $332.2 million, of which $156.3 million is in federal dollars. Consequently, flexibility is important to us because it allows us to move funds to match our transportation needs.
Our mission is: to maintain a transportation system that allows for the safe ' movement of people and goods in a cost-efficient, environmentally sensitive, and timely manner. Our ability to fulfill that mission is being impacted by several large projects. These "large" projects are necessary, but they are draining our resources and in the process forcing us to delay projects essential to our mission. As a result, we have about $109 million worth of projects that are permitted and ready for construction but are sitting on the "shelf" because we have not been able to identify a source of funds. While $109 million may not seem like a lot of money at the national level, remember our total transportation budget for fiscal 2003 is $332.3 million. And I might add that here in Vermont a large or "mega" project is NOT the Big Dig in Boston or the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. We are talking about $42 million for the Alburg-Swanton Bridge over Mississquoi Bay; $100 million for the Bennington by-pass; or $80 million for the next two phases of the Chittenden County Circumferential Highway (Route 289).
Parts of our Interstate system are over 40 years old and in need of repair. A recent needs assessment of Vermont's 320 miles of the Eisenhower Interstate System showed an investment of $74 million was needed just to bring the system up to federal standards. Simply put, we cannot afford that kind of investment and meet our other commitments/needs on our.NHS and state highway, systems. Vermont is not alone. Other states have similar interstate problems and needs. In my judgement, the time has come for the Congress to make another significant investment; to repair and upgrade the Interstate system, similar to the investment that was made in the 50's, 60's, and 70's to build the Interstates.
As the Congress works towards reauthorizatiion of TEA-21, I hope you will maintain the course set by ISTEA and sustained in TEA-21 by continuing to recognize that all states are different, that it is the diversity of the states viewed as a whole that makes our country so great. I urge you to retain the existing structure of TEA-2 1. Improvements can be made, but the fundamental structure is sound and should be preserved. Flexibility is important to us. Vermont's smallness provides us with some unique opportunities to do things that larger states might not be able to accomplish. Funding is still the key, and I would urge you to authorize the maximum level of federal investment possible. Funding mechanisms, including guaranteed funding levels and annual adjustments to those levels, should be continued to achieve Congressional intent that all available funds be invested in transportation improvements. Just as ISTEA and T'EA-21 made significant strides in growing the program, the next surface transportation bill must provide new sources of revenues so we can jointly meet the challenges facing the states and the nation as a whole.