Vermont embarking on largest highway spending ever

RICHMOND, Vt. (AP) — The Vermont Agency of Transportation is embarking on a series of highway construction and repair projects that are part of the biggest transportation spending plan in state history.

Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the $639 million transportation bill Wednesday in Richmond in front of the historic Checkered House Bridge on Route 2 over the Winooski River, which is being rebuilt and widened as part of that process to make it safer while preserving the historic character of the span.

"This transportation budget is different than any passed and signed by any Legislature and governor," Shumlin said. "It's the largest in our history. As you know, we've had tremendous transportation challenges after fighting the storms of April, the storms of May and Tropical Storm Irene.

"We made a promise to Vermonters that we would rebuild Vermont better than the way Irene found us. This transportation bill reflects that commitment."

Shumlin says the state is applying the lessons learned from its rapid — and ongoing — recovery from Tropical Storm Irene, such as the closing bridges while they are being replaced rather than building expensive temporary spans. Such efforts save time and money.

The fiscal 2013 spending plan increases transportation spending by $105 million over the current year, which includes a $28 million increase in funds for highway paving.

It also cuts in half the amount of money local communities have to pay as their share of state transportation projects. It cuts in half the share that local communities have to pay for road and bridge repair where there is federal aid from 20 percent to 10 percent, while the local match for local Irene recovery projects is cut from 10 percent to 5 percent.

Transportation Secretary Brian Searles said the projects include more than just ongoing repairs to roads and bridges damaged in Irene. Planners are looking at five alternative proposals to the now-abandoned circumferential highway through Chittenden County around Burlington.

The state is going to start on a long-awaited $30 million truck route in Morristown, work is going to continue on the rebuilding of Main Street in the city of Barre and Route 2 in Danville, which could be finished this year. The northern segment of the Bennington bypass project will be finished this year and add about 500 new park and ride spaces across the state.

"There's a lot going on here, and I haven't even mentioned Irene," Searles said. "We will do Irene restoration this year, next year and maybe into the following year, but the fact is it won't interrupt our regular queue of projects."

Given all the highway construction projects that are under way in Vermont this year, officials urged drivers to be careful in a record number of construction zones.

"These work zones aren't just filled with yellow and orange vests and hardhats. They're filled with people. These are peoples' parents, brothers, husbands, wives, cousins," said Transportation Agency Operations Director Scott Rogers. "They're our workers, construction contractors and they have a very hard job to do. We ask that folks please slow down when you approach a work zone, pay attention, put down your cell phone and make the work zone safer."

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