Rough Roads: Aging transportation network a hurdle for State road repairs

04/03/08 7:55AM By John Dillon
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(Host) The constant freezing and thawing this winter have cracked highways and opened up crater-sized potholes.

But the problem didn't just happen over the past few months.

For years, Vermont has failed to keep up with repairs to the state's aging transportation network.

The question now in Montpelier is how can the state catch up before the situation gets even worse?

VPR's John Dillon looks at the problem, and the possible solutions, in this week's rough roads series.

(Dillon) Everybody's got their favorite stretch of bad road. For Janice Peaslee, it's the section of Route 2 that she travels on her commute to the Statehouse. Peaslee is a Republican from Guildhall in Essex County, and she says the roads are getting worse.

(Peaslee) "If you haven't taken a ride from here to West Danville, I mean you haven't lived.... And I don't know how to describe it, except it's just horrendous."

(Dillon) Peaslee has served on the Transportation Committee for 18 years. Her Northeast Kingdom district has some of the worst roads in the state. In Caledonia County, 81% of the roadways are rated in poor condition.

(Peaslee) "It's like we get the crumbs, or we're the poor cousins of Vermont."

(Dillon) The pieces of asphalt crumbling off Route 2 and other highways are more than a sign of spring. The cracked pavement points to bigger problems - problems with decaying infrastructure and stagnant state funding.

To find out why roads disintegrate, and what the state can do about it, I hitched an early morning ride with the state's top road warrior, Transportation Secretary Neale Lunderville. We started on Route 15 near Essex Junction.

(Lunderville) "Vermonters are certainly used to rougher roads and potholes in the spring. And we're always trying to do the best we can, with the budgets we have."

(Dillon) Lunderville brought along his own expert. Gil Newbury is a state structural engineer. And he started with a history lesson.

(Newbury) "When you talk about where it starts, you have to go back before the birth of Christ, to the old Roman roads."

(Dillon) As we're waiting for a light to change, Newbury explains that the Romans knew that water destroyed roads, so they built theirs with proper drainage. The early road builders in Vermont apparently didn't study Roman history.

(Newbury) "Our roads didn't start out that way. They started out as paths that became a road from one rural settlement to another. It became a farm to a market road."

(Dillon) Water is the enemy of pavement. When it freezes and thaws, it causes frost heaves -- and this year's gigantic pot holes. As we lurch over Route 128 near Westford, Lunderville says it's financially impossible to completely fix all the roads in the state.

(Sound of the car hitting a bump)

(Lunderville) "That's a big frost heave we just went over. The fact is we're just going to never have the budgets to do all the work that ideally from an engineer's perfect world that we'd want to do on these roads."

(Dillon) But the question is are we catching up, or is the state slipping behind in road repairs?

Lunderville is optimistic.

(Lunderville) "I think we are catching up. It's going to be a slow path back to good, on all of our assets, not just our roads but our bridges and our culverts as well."

(Dillon) The roads may be getting better - at least on paper. The state recently changed how it ranks road conditions. Officials got rid of the worst category. Bad roads are no longer rated very poor. Now they're just called poor. And they added a top category. The best roads are now called excellent, instead of just good.

Kevin Marshia manages the state's roadway traffic and safety programs. He tried to explain the change at a recent hearing of the House Transportation Committee.

(Marshia) "A poor roadway is a poor roadway, and as we define it, that is a roadway where drivers do need to take corrective measures because of some of the deficiencies in the highway."

(Dillon) But the committee was skeptical. Here's Waterbury Democrat Sue Minter.

(Minter) "They have not changed any of this. They've changed what they call it and to me that's spin. That's what I think you're doing."

(Dillon) Governor Jim Douglas says the road description was not meant to minimize problems with the transportation network.

(Douglas) "The terminology that we've had has been somewhat weighted toward less favorable conditions. I don't know what they are, fair poor, very poor, very, very poor, very, very very poor... So the agency has tried to rename the categories and make them more realistic in their view. But we have some challenges. I don't want to suggest that we don't."

(Dillon) House Transportation Committee Chairman Richard Westman says we're losing ground.

(Westman) "The roads are getting worse. And they're going to continue to get worse. In this year's budget although they'll tell you there's over 250 miles treated, some of that is just what they call crack and seal, you go and fill the cracks. In actuality, this budget only has 98 miles of paving on the state highway system. We have 3,200 miles of road. So what that really means is we're on a track to pave roads, a mile every 32 years."

(Dillon) How does Vermont's transportation system compare with the rest of the country? Westman says we're near the bottom - 44th - in terms of the condition of our bridges.

There's not a similar federal ranking system for roads. But data from the U.S. Department of Transportation shows that Vermont's roads are worse than New Hampshire's. The Granite State has 51% of its road surface, including interstates - rated as "good." In Vermont, the rating is 44%. Vermont also has a higher percentage of pavement rated as poor or mediocre.

(Westman) "So this is a really difficult situation and it causes a lot of frustration in our committee, because we're so far behind in what we're doing statewide for transportation."

(Dillon) The roads are bad here for three main reasons: Geography: northern climates are harsh on highways. History: bridges built here after the great flood of 1927 need to be replaced. And many interstate bridges constructed 40 years ago also needs major work.

Meanwhile, politicians of both parties have chronically under funded transportation projects.

Steve Kimbell is a veteran lobbyist who represents the Vermont Paving Association. He says that for years, the state diverted Transportation Fund dollars to pay for other programs. He says the diversion added up to $385 million from 1991 to 2002.

(Kimbell) "Now that amount has been decreasing in recent years. But it's still in the range of $30 million, I believe. We've done that since 1985. Actually Governor Snelling proposed the first transfer of that nature."

(Dillon) There are other challenges as well. There's less money available to fix a problem that's getting more expensive every year.

(Kimbell) "The funding sources for the transportation fund are declining revenue sources. The gas tax, particularly. On the other hand the cost of construction and paving is going up, because of the cost of oil, the cost of aggregate, the cost of steel. So costs are going up, revenue source is declining. That's not sustainable."

(Dillon) Vermont is not unique. Lisa Aultman-Hall is director of the Transportation Center at the University of Vermont.

(Aultman-Hall) "Mostly in the 1950s and 1960s -we built a system that is now bigger than we can afford."

(Dillon) But Aultman-Hall sees a silver lining in the year of the pothole. She predicts the public will pressure policymakers to make changes.

(Aultman-Hall) "Because I think it means that more members of the community and more Vermonters are going to become engaged in the transportation funding discussion."

(Dillon) In the Legislature, Richard Westman says transportation has to become a top political priority, like health care, the environment, or economic development.

(Westman) "The real situation now is that we've got this problem. It's on our doorstep. And if we don't really begin to do so, in 5 to 10 years from now we will be handing a transportation infrastructure to the next generation that is far inferior to where we are today, if we don't get busy.

(Dillon) Westman's committee has pushed the Douglas Administration to issue bonds to fix the roads. The governor doesn't want the state to borrow more money.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

Photo: VTrans Secretary Neale Lunderville examines a Westford road

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