Editorial: Tropical Storm Irene’s silver lining

The numbers from Tropical Storm Irene are slowly coming in, offering a fuller picture of the storm’s damage and the potential cost to the state and local communities. The challenge is to find the silver lining.
The damage to state roads and bridges has been well publicized from just a few days after the Aug. 28 flooding closed 146 state roads and shut down 34 state bridges. According to the Vermont Agency of Transportation, today the state has reopened 140 of those roads (with some restrictions on 27 of them), while six roads remain closed. Meanwhile, 28 bridges have been reopened (three with restrictions) and six remain closed.
Irene closed 531 miles of state roads in its aftermath. Since then, 518 miles of state roads have been reopened.
The state roads that remain closed are: Route 107 in Stockbridge and Bethel, Route 131 in Cavendish, Route 106 in Weathersfield, Route 100 in Jamaica and Route 12A in Roxbury. Bridges that remain closed include the junction of Routes 100-73 in Rochester, Route 73 in Barnard, Route 100 in Readsboro and Jamaica, two bridges on Route 12A in Roxbury.
The numbers, as compiled by the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, are even higher in local communities:
• 2,260 segments of town roads were reportedly closed in the storm’s aftermath, with 170 segments that were still closed as of last week.
• 33 segments of local roads were still open only to emergency vehicles as of last week.
• 289 local bridges were damaged in the storm.
• 90 local bridges remain closed as of last week, while six are open only to emergency vehicles.
The cost remains elusive, but it could set the state’s highway budgeting back an entire year, and put some local communities in the position of having to raise taxes significantly to pay for necessary repairs. Transportation Secretary Brian Searles has put the price tag for state roads at between $500 million and $700 million, compared to this year’s transportation budget of $553 million.
If there is any good news in this picture of destruction, it’s that the state has suffered so much damage at the hands of Irene that it will likely qualify for 90-10 funding from the federal government; that is, federal aid will cover 90 percent of the cost of rebuilding, leaving the state and local communities a 10 percent share (rather than the more typical 75-25 split.) And the federal government will kick in the first $100 million at 100 percent funding, if the work is done within the first 180 days for state roads.
Meeting such deadlines in Alabama might be possible, but in Vermont, six months means the end of February or early March, which is precisely why Sen. Patrick Leahy is not only trying to get the $100 million limit raised, but also extend the deadline to sometime next summer as a recognition that Vermont’s road construction season ends mid-November and doesn’t start again until late spring.
But all this — from the day that Irene’s waters starting tearing into Vermont’s roads and bridges until today’s cost estimates — simply mark the end of phase one. We met the beast, fought well and prevailed.
In phase two, we must find ways to build better defenses.
In some instances, what has been rebuilt in the haste of the moment is a done deal. In other instances — in which temporary bridges have replaced washed out culverts or damaged bridges — state and local road crews will have to consider how they can make the rebuilt infrastructure handle such extreme weather, or what some believe is the “new normal.”
The goal, as the governor has said time and again, is to rebuild in a way that makes Vermont even stronger and more prepared to meet future storms without disruption. To do that we’ll need to invest in that infrastructure, and there is no better time to do it than when we have 90-10 funding from the federal government. It will be a short-term burden, and this economy is not ideal, but it is the smart thing to do.
One way to ease the tax burden is to pass a gas tax to raise the necessary funds for a set time, and then rescind it once the repairs are made.
Ultimately, this could be Irene’s silver lining. The state has long known its transportation infrastructure was in bad shape, ranking near the bottom of the 50 states. If we focus on rebuilding that system wisely and ramp up short-term spending, we can replace the worst sections with something that is better able to handle tomorrow’s storms, while also leveraging federal aid. That’s just good business, if only we have the political will to do it.
Angelo S. Lynn

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