An uncertain budget for an uncertain time

With 2021 transportation revenue uncertain, House Transportation Committee hears idea to pass full-year budget but allocate $$ for just 3-4 months

By Guy Page

April 16, 2020 – In response to uncertain FY 2021 state transportation revenues, the House Transportation Committee Wednesday discussed a proposal to approve a full year of transportation spending but allocate only enough money for three or four months.

An April 2 report issued by Joint Fiscal Office projects a $45 million FY 2020 revenue shortfall – due mostly to drastically reduced driving and gasoline purchases – and projects unspecified revenue shortfalls for 2021. It’s possible but unknown at this time if federal stimulus/recovery funding could help recoup these losses. 

Agency of Transportation official Neil Schickner said AOT is mulling a proposal to recommend a 12 month, July 2020 – June 2021 budget, fund the first few months, then reassess needs and revenues for the rest of the year.  

The most recent (March 24) draft of the 2021 Transportation Bill features a $3.4 million reduction in highway maintenance spending. It also increases in alternative transportation such as free fare on public transportation, $2500 rebates on electric vehicle purchases for households earning up to $125,000, $4.5 million for the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail, $200,000 for EV marketing, and an unspecified amount for a pilot project to encourage employers to not drive their personal cars to work. 

The March 24 draft of the committee’s proposed 2021 Transportation budget now “on hold” includes:

  • $3.4 million less for highway maintenance spending. Federal funding remains the same but reduced state spending accounts for all of the $3.4 million reduction.
  • $8.6 million to replace AOT Central Garage vehicles, including $250,000 for DMV enforcement vehicles.
  • a new, $500,000, state-funded pilot program for Fare Free public transit. Spending of these allocated state funds shall include: replacement of lost revenue to transit providers; route performance, including ridership, analysis; marketing; and administration.
  • Public transportation improvements, as unobligated federal funds become available, includin adding new local and regional service connections to improve rural ridership; technology improvements for transit; expanding access to available seats in transit vehicles; and marketing to increase public awareness of public transit options.
  • $4.5 million combined state/federal funding for the bike/pedestrian Lamoille Valley Rail Trail. 
  • $4.25 million for Electric Vehicle incentives and repair. ($2 million of this sum was appropriated for 2021 in the 2020 budget.) Unexpended money will be carried forward into the next fiscal year. Couples earning $125,000 or less may qualify for incentives of $1500 for a battery-electric car and $2500 for a plug-in electric car. Couples earning less than $50,000 qualify for $3000 for the BEV and $4000 for the PEV. (Individual households also qualify as slightly lower earnings.)
  • $200,000 to market plug-in electric vehicle use. 
  • A requirement for electric utilities to develop PEV rates for consumers, to be implemented in 2024. 
  • A pilot project for selected employers to engage in  “transportation demand management” on employees. Companies would incentivize employees to commute to work by other means than their “pleasure cars,” which state law says includes individuals driving to work alone in their personal cars. The bill says the pilot project will be state-funded but no cost figure is attached. 

Funding for electrification of transportation might get a shot in the arm from federal money, AOT official Michelle Boomhower said. “We’re going to have to wait and see what the stimulus might bring us.”

The projected 2020 revenue shortfall mostly can be addressed by using unspent funds from Amtrak and rail funding, and by reallocating savings from the suspended spring construction season, Schickner said. These measures would cover the deficit without tapping into the reserve fund – “but if ever they tap into the rainy day fund, this seems to be the rainy day to do it,” Schickner said. 

I-89 emergency culvert repair near Exit 18 in Georgia (above) is one of the few VTrans projects permitted to continue during the State of Emergency. VTrans photo.