News
Calculated Moves
Legislators mull strategies while rising costs and deteriorating infrastructure keep road budgets in a state of perpetual check

By Keith Goble
State Legislative Editor

 

In November, 'Land Line' will continue its look at state officials seeking solutions to road and bridge funding problems. In that upcoming coverage, State Legislative Editor Keith Goble will take a close look at Texas, Oklahoma and other states with lagging transportation budgets.

Numerous states confronted with a need for road and bridge work are short on money to pay for the projects. The reasons for the funding crises are all over the board and include escalating prices for oil, which have driven up costs of asphalt and other paving materials.

Lagging revenue from fuel taxes also gets part of the blame, as does uncertainty about future federal funding. As a result, state officials who are trying to plan their next moves are being forced to either cut back on transportation work or pursue alternative means to generate revenue.

The stakes are high and like chess masters engaged in a world-class match, state lawmakers are working within tight time constraints as they maneuver to pay for projects. Here is a sampling of the moves some state officials are considering to avoid checkmate when it comes to their road budgets.

Minnesota

With images of one of the nation’s worst bridge collapses fresh in their minds, Minnesota legislators are calling for several steps to be taken to prevent a similar event.

In addition to re-inspecting bridges, state lawmakers are talking about having a special session, joint House and Senate hearings and possibly reviving discussion of a fuel tax increase.

At press time, Gov. Tim Pawlenty was considering calling lawmakers back to the capitol to deal with how to come up with the state’s share of costs for rebuilding the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed Aug. 1.

The federal government is expected to require the state to put up at least 10 percent of the costs to rebuild the structure, which was the most heavily used bridge in the state. The feds had allotted $50 million for recovery and cleanup and as of press time another $250 million in funding was on the way to help with the rebuild effort.

Estimates put the cost to clean up debris and replace the span at between $300 million and $500 million, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.

In the wake of the bridge collapse, the Republican governor made it clear that “everything is on the table” when it comes to funding needs in the state’s transportation system. Pawlenty said he might reverse his stance on a state fuel tax increase.

Pawlenty vetoed legislation in 2005 and again just this spring to increase the state’s 20-cent-per-gallon fuel tax rate. As an alternative, he has favored borrowing money to pay for transportation needs.

Alabama

Gov. Bob Riley has a message for Alabama residents who want better roads: consider tolls roads or public-private partnerships.

The governor said revenue collected from the state’s fuel tax cannot keep up with road and bridge needs, The Huntsville Times reported. He also said that matching funds from the federal government aren’t enough to cover the gap.

To make matters worse, toll advocates say the lack of revenue from fuel taxes is an even bigger problem because of soaring costs for construction materials.

Riley said raising taxes on gasoline and diesel is not the answer. A better solution could be toll roads, he said.

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta recently shared that sentiment. Mineta visited Alabama this spring to stand by Riley and tout the benefits of tolls over more fuel taxes.

“We can no longer rely on the gas tax as the sole means to fund road building and other transportation needs,” Mineta told a transportation conference in April.

Toll roads are likely to draw consideration once the Alabama Legislature convenes its regular session in January 2008.

Colorado

Gov. Bill Ritter is keeping his strategy to himself when it comes to talking about increasing the state’s fuel tax rates to pay for road work.

The Democratic governor said he is withholding comment so that his opinion doesn’t pre-empt the work of a transportation panel he appointed this year. The panel was put together to consider all options for maintaining roads. The panel is expected to offer recommendations to Ritter in November.

Officials with the Colorado Department of Transportation estimate it will cost $65 billion to maintain the existing system of roads and bridges through 2030. Another $40 billion is needed to make improvements to keep pace with population growth, The Denver Post reported.

In addition to the fuel tax, other funding proposals drawing discussion include increasing the sales and income tax rates, as well as creating a tax on lodging and auto rentals. Charging drivers a tax on vehicle miles traveled in Colorado is another idea.

Any effort to increase taxes in the state would need to pass muster with voters before it could take effect. Voters rejected the most recent attempt to raise the fuel tax in 1998.

Connecticut

With states across the country re-examining the safety of their bridges, Gov. M. Jodi Rell is calling for state lawmakers to authorize more money for bridge work.

Rell is likely to ask House and Senate lawmakers to include $100 million in the state bonding package to help speed up bridge inspections, repairs and replacements during the next two years.

In light of the Minnesota bridge collapse, Rell said she wants $60 million to be added to the state bond package, which could to be considered during a special session. The money would supplement the $40 million she’s already requested.

The governor said the $100 million request might put the state in position to receive up to $400 million in matching federal funds, The Associated Press reported. The federal government pays 80 percent of the cost of eligible bridge repair and replacement projects.

Once the bond package is finalized, the Connecticut Department of Transportation will develop a priority list of bridge projects and a schedule for the work.

Idaho

An increase in taxes and fees for transportation in Idaho isn’t all that bad of a proposition as far as Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter is concerned, even though his state ended the fiscal year in June with an unexpected $247 million budget surplus that could be used to boost road funding.

Neither the governor nor leaders in the House and Senate want to spend the surplus on transportation projects. Instead, the governor has repeated his endorsement for boosting revenues for road and bridge work in the state by $200 million. It could be a major point of emphasis during the 2008 regular session.

The Idaho Transportation Department in the fall of 2006 unveiled the plan to increase the state’s per-gallon fuel tax rate. Higher fees for registration and agency services also were revealed.

By spring this year, Otter said the changes would likely be necessary. He cited fewer federal dollars for transportation that could leave the state billions of dollars short for work needed during the next 20 years.

Those concerns recently were revisited when Otter said the price tags for fixing Interstate 84 and U.S. 95 are exceeding the transportation agency’s roughly $500 million annual budget and the $1 billion “Connecting Idaho” bonds-for-roads program, The AP reported.

Otter said he understands that the public doesn’t want to hear about higher taxes but he said the need cannot be ignored.

In November 2006, The Idaho Transportation Board recommended boosting the 25-cent per-gallon fuel tax, as well as adding a sales tax to fuel purchases. They also recommended boosting fees for trucking permits.

Iowa

Iowa Gov. Chet Culver and others are trying to shore up the state’s fund for road and bridge repairs. To expedite the process, an interim committee will gather this fall to study transportation funding. The panel was created after the Iowa Department of Transportation revealed that state, city and county roads are staring at a $28 billion shortfall for road and bridge work during the next two decades.

Officials with the Iowa DOT say the state needs $200 million more per year to keep up with transportation needs. The added revenue would amount to an extra 9 cents per gallon collected on the state’s fuel taxes. Other options include boosting fees for vehicle registrations and driver’s licenses and stiffer fines for overweight trucks.

To make matters worse, funding aid from the federal government is cloudy. The U.S. Department of Transportation has announced it may cut funding to states.

Culver is expected to have a funding plan at the ready to present to the Legislature when it convenes for the 2008 regular session.

Missouri

Two transportation leaders in the Missouri statehouse are sounding the alarm that the state soon will be in a road funding crisis if taxes are not increased. The state is approaching the end of its current construction program without any revenue sources lined up to pay for interstate highway improvements.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Neal St. Onge, R-Ballwin, has proposed raising the state’s per-gallon diesel tax by 6 cents and the gas tax by 4 cents. He also wants to impose a 2-percent sales tax on fuel, a half-cent general sales tax and higher license fees for cars and trucks.

The additional revenue would add up to an estimated $4 billion during six years to help foot the bill for dedicated truck lanes on Interstate 70. The revenue also would be used to upgrade ports and boost public transportation.

Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, is calling for dedicated truck lanes on I-70 and Interstate 44. The improvements would be paid through a 1-cent sales tax increase during the next decade. The tax boost would generate about $8 billion.

If endorsed by lawmakers, both proposals still would require voter approval.


keith_goble@landlinemag.com

March/April
Digital Edition