Lawmakers tallying up Irene clean-up costs

VERMONT — At a joint meeting of the Vermont Senate and House Transportation Committees on Transportation in Montpelier last Wednesday, one thing was clear: The state’s coffers stand to take a major hit following Tropical Storm Irene.
As the costs of cleaning up storm damage and repairing infrastructure have mounted in all sectors affected by Irene, a clearer picture has begun to materialize in the transportation arena. At Wednesday’s meeting, officials at the Agency of Transportation (VTrans) estimated that the total cost of damage to state roads alone could exceed $500 million.
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said getting an accounting of the costs of rebuilding efforts is crucial for legislators at this stage.
“We did not want to be coming back in January without knowing what’s going on,” Lanpher said in an interview after the meeting. “Now we all have the same data.”
Lanpher said one thing she took away from the gathering — at which VTrans officials were joined by officials from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and Vermont Rail System — was how promptly private and public employees had responded in the days and months following the disaster.
“We heard over and over again how barriers were dropped, and how people worked together to get it done,” said Lanpher. “They acted in a spirit of cooperation to get done what Vermont needed done.
Now, however, the Legislature’s concern is making sure that state and local transportation agencies can continue to maintain Vermont roads while addressing the problems caused by Irene.
Immediately following the tropical storm’s visit to Vermont on Aug. 27 and 28, 531 miles of road and 34 bridges in the state were closed. Within a month, that number had fallen to 13 miles of road and six bridges, according to officials at the meeting.
To address the damages in so short a time, however, VTrans redirected 80 percent of its staff — approximately 700 people — to emergency response efforts, and reallocated $37 million worth of federal highway funds in order to carry out emergency repairs.
Lanpher said these staffing reallocations have not inhibited projects that are currently in progress — the state of Vermont uses private contractors to do much of its road work. The agency has reduced staffing for planning and development, meaning that VTrans will likely take a hit on scheduling and carrying out future projects.
“Basically, what we’ve done is borrowed from Peter to pay Paul,” said Lanpher.
In addition, Vermont received contributions of time, equipment and services from many sources, including National Guard troops from Vermont, Maine, Illinois, Ohio, New Hampshire, South Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia; Department of Transportation officials from Maine and New Hampshire; medical personnel from as far away as Louisiana and Florida and approximately 1,800 people from the private sector.
Lanpher said in most cases, no one waded through paperwork to start the job of recovery — people just jumped into the work on a handshake, and one of the Legislature’s jobs is making sure the state can compensate those who helped.
Officials at the meeting also highlighted the gaping holes in disaster recovery funding.
While $5 million in federal emergency relief funding has already come in for the state’s roads, Chris Cole, director of policy and planning for VTrans, reported that until Congress can agree on emergency transportation funding, VTrans will not know how much of the bill it must foot with state money.
The Federal Highway Administration’s Emergency Relief Program reimburses states for up to $100 million in damages on state and local highway systems, with the possibility of a waiver that would grant more funding depending on the severity of the disaster. Prior to Irene, however, the program had more than $1 billion worth of requests from disasters around the country. Funding for the program is currently up for discussion in Congress, as is FEMA disaster funding, which, if approved, would free up funds for the rebuilding of Vermont’s transportation systems.
“Until we know what Congressional action will be … it is an impossible task to determine Vermont’s revenue needs for recovery efforts that have taken place or will take place in the future,” wrote Cole in a memo to legislators.
Lanpher said the decisions Congress makes in the coming months could help determine the state’s budget for years to come.
“If D.C. does not come through, then we’ll have to make some decisions,” said Lanpher. “This will impact Vermont for the rest of this decade.”
Speakers at the meeting also highlighted the role of regional planning commissions across the state as local liaisons to government, VTrans, contractors and FEMA officials during the recovery period. The regional commissions are sources for mapping and data, and resources for towns and cities applying for disaster funding.
The deadline for municipality disaster relief applications was Monday, Oct. 17, and following that, statewide submissions will be added up in order to calculate FEMA assistance for Vermont towns. During a standard disaster, FEMA funds 75 percent of a qualifying town’s or city’s response and recovery costs, while the municipality and the state split the remaining 25 percent. If the total damage reported amounts to more than $79 million statewide, however, FEMA will pay 90 percent of response and recovery costs, while the municipality and the state will split 10 percent of the costs.
According to statewide public assistance data collected by regional planning commissions, Hancock is the only town in Addison County that was “severely impacted,” with many roads closed or impassable. Granville, Ripton and Lincoln are all listed as “moderately impacted,” with some roads out following the disaster.
But even for those towns with moderate damage, recovery costs are adding up. In a letter to the Joint Transportation Committee, Karen Horn, public policy and advocacy director at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, said repairs won’t be easy to afford.
“If FEMA reimburses at the 75 percent rate … the strain (on towns) is going to be tremendous. If FEMA reimburses at the 90 percent rate, the state and municipalities are in better shape but not really out of the woods, given the level of damage sustained.”
Lanpher said she will be keeping a close eye on federal funding decisions over the next few months, until the legislative session begins in January and funding discussions commence in earnest. That’s what comes after the work is done.
“What we’re going to do in January will depend on what comes out of D.C.,” said Lanpher. “Right now we’re treading water, waiting.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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