Alabama lawmakers uncertain about bond issue for roads

State struggles to find funds to construct, repair roads and bridges

News Tuscaloosa News, February 04, 2008
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Alabama’s efforts to balance road maintenance with road construction as fuel tax collections level off and construction costs rise, but how to find the money for both in the face of a worsening national economy remains unclear.

State legislators are uncertain about a proposed $275 million bond issue to fund construction of new roads and bridges or repair old ones, according to an Associated Press survey of lawmakers. The Association of County Commissions of Alabama is trying to raise support for the bond issue, which would be similar to a $200 million bond issue for roads and bridges approved by voters in 2000.

The proposed bond issue is just one of the issues up for debate in the Legislature, which begins its 2008 regular session at noon Feb. 5 and is expected to last about three and a half months. The Legislature has received several proposals to pay for new construction but none appear likely to win approval. Because of slow growth in tax revenues, legislators are facing the prospect of cutting back the state budgets for the coming fiscal year, and the main mission for lawmakers is to pass budgets for education and for state services.

A poll of legislators by the Association Press reveals lukewarm, at best, support for the bond. In the Senate, 55% of those responding said they were undecided, 38% supported the bond issue and 7% were opposed. In the House, 39% said they were undecided, 41% supported the bond issue and 20% were opposed. With less than 50% support in both chambers, it would be difficult to pass the measures.

Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana, sponsored the bond issue bill last year and will introduce it in the upcoming session, but is not optimistic.

"Most of those undecideds are really 'nos' and they just don't want to say it," Hill said.

Hill said county roads and bridges are in bad shape, including some that are used daily by school buses. County officials say there are more than 1,500 bridges on Alabama county roads that have received failing grades under federal standards.

"We're building roads with the same amount of money we had in 1994 and it costs a lot more," Hill said.

"It's hard to say on the one hand that we are going to increase spending, yet on the other hand we have to decrease the budget," said House Speaker Seth Hammett.

But Hammett said there is a need for additional funding for roads and bridges, mostly due to the rising costs of asphalt, concrete and steel.

Legislators were asked if they had other ideas for funding county road and bridge work. Some suggestions included taxing billboards, increasing the license fee for commercial vehicles and using some of the money currently going into a savings account funded by oil and gas revenue. One legislator plans to introduce a bill allowing county commissions to increase local gasoline taxes as much as 5 or 6 cents a gallon. Gov. Bob Riley has introduced the subject of building toll roads as a way to pay for major highway projects, but its not clear how the Legislature will respond to that proposal.

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