State Case Study

In 2013, with the support of Governor Peter Shumlin, Vermont boosted transportation funding by enacting a 4 percent sales tax on gasoline, while reducing the existing 19-cent-per-gallon tax. The result was an improved yield of roughly 6.5 cents per gallon, based on gas prices at the time of passage. The measure resulted in a mix of revenue sources designed to better respond to inflation. The bill also increased the diesel tax by 3 cents per gallon, phased in over two years. The expected revenues from these changes are an additional $28 million per year to support road and bridge improvements.

The Crown Point Bridge during replacement in 2011. Flickr photo by Doug Kerr.

Groundwork for the package was laid in 2012, when the state legislature established a Committee on Transportation Funding to assess the gap between the state’s needs and projected revenue and to evaluate alternative funding sources. The committee’s report showed an average gap of $240 million a year from 2014 to 2018 needed to operate, administer and maintain Vermont’s transportation system in a state of good repair. Moreover, if the state did not come up with new funding, it would not be able to provide the required matching funds to receive $56 million in federal funding.

The “pro” campaign could point to some high-profile examples of the impacts of inadequately funded infrastructure. In 2009, the state had to close the Crown Point Bridge across Lake Champlain unexpectedly when engineers found the structure to be severely compromised. Drivers were forced to take a 100-mile detour until a ferry crossing opened. While the replacement bridge was still under construction, Tropical Storm Irene caused extensive damage in towns throughout Vermont.

The Route 73/Route 100 bridge in Rochester, Vermont after its collapse during Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011. Flickr photo by belvidesigns.

Governor Shumlin, a Democrat, made transportation funding a substantial priority and pushed the state legislature to act quickly. Although he had enough support from his own party to adopt the measure, he worked with both sides of the aisle and was able to win bipartisan support, brokering a compromise when the House and Senate version clashed.

The resulting bill was passed by a 107-36 House vote and won nearly unanimous passage in the Senate. Instrumental to the passage of the bill was Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith and Republican Chairman of the House Transportation Committee Rep. Patrick Brennan, who worked together on the compromise bill with the governor.

The bill overcame opposition from the Vermont Grocers Association, Vermont Petroleum Association, and the Vermont Truck and Bus Association (who opposed only the diesel tax increase), largely because their opposition did not take hold more broadly and the business community was not actively working to oppose it. Cities and towns became key allies in the fight for transportation funding and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns strongly advocated for increased state transportation funds.