Delaware’s Transportation Trust Fund faces a $1.5 billion shortfall, and government officials are campaigning across the state to gather support for a proposal to make up the deficit, according to the Delaware State News.
Secretary of Transportation Carolann D. Wicks has made more than a dozen presentations to civic groups and governmental organizations outlining the controversial proposal, House Bill 50, which calls for increasing taxes, tolls and fees.
Wicks told the paper that educating residents about the rising cost of construction and real estate, contributing factors to the shortfall, was the primary purpose of the presentations, although she hopes citizens who understand and agree with the proposal call their legislators.
“We realize that nobody wants a fee increase,” Wicks told the paper. “People don’t always like the outcome, but if they can respect how we came to the decision and involved others in the debate and dialogue, then we’ve done our job.”
Increases called for in the proposal include raising the motor fuel tax 5 cents, documentation fees by 1.75% over two years, vehicle registrations by 50%, as well as doubling Del. 1 tolls for passenger vehicles and removing discounts for E-Z Pass on Del. 1 and I-95, the newspaper reported.
The vehicle registration fees have remained the same since 1965, and others have not been increased for several years.
The motor fuel tax, 50% registration fee increases, elimination of E-Z Pass discounts and most of the documentation fee hike would be implemented Sept. 1, while the toll increases and remainder of the documentation fee would go into effect September of 2008.
Wicks has given 15 half-hour presentations to groups since February, including Middletown Town Council, Sussex County Association of Towns and Capital City Rotary, while Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) staff have made an additional six presentations, according to the Delaware State News.
The presentation, Wicks told the paper, outlines the current situation and what steps have been taken before considering the fee increases to give residents “a comfort level” and lay the groundwork for the proposal. Wicks also answers questions after the presentation.
“Everyone looks at the numbers and says that they can see (DelDOT) has a problem,” Sussex County assistant administrator Harold Godwin, who has seen the presentation multiple times, told the paper. “It’s always good to make sure the neighborhood folks know what’s going on in their neighborhood.”
“Carolann is a good messenger,” Sen. John C Still (R-Dover) told the paper. “She’s not a politician. She’s an engineer. She knows transportation issues better than anyone, including the governor.” A member of the Joint Bond Bill Committee, Still will tackle the issue of the trust fund shortfall later this session.
The state is facing a very difficult climate in which to address the controversial proposal, Still said, with New Castle County increasing property taxes and Dover hiking electric rates, the paper reported.
“This is not a good time to be making these decisions,” he said. “But we have to do some of them because the next governor is going to have his or her back against the wall.”
Increasing the vehicle registration fee could have dire consequences for the trucking industry, Richard Williams, legislative chair for the Delaware Motor Transport Association, told the paper, noting that commercial trucks account for 10.6% of all registered vehicles in the state, but pay 33.7% of the registration fees.
While a 50% increase in the fee for a car is $10, it would be $640 for a commercial tractor-trailer, Williams told the paper. “The trucking industry quite frankly can’t take it.” Williams said he has opened a dialogue to try to reach a compromise on the registration fee hike with members of the Bond Bill Committee and Wicks.
“You are going to see more trucking companies going out of business as a result. You can only pass so much of the cost of business on,” Williams told the paper.
While pitching the transportation revenue proposal as part of her legislative agenda during many of her public appearances, Minner has deferred to Wicks to take the lead on the plan.
“I felt I was the best person for this job given my position and experience,” Wicks told the paper. “I live it, I lose sleep over it. This is the best use of my role and it’s my responsibility to do this.”