ROADS/BRIDGES: Money, money … money

Like falling dominoes, funding concerns affect multiple state DOTs 

Funding News January 07, 2015
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With Congress about to reconvene for a 105-day session, transportation funding is perhaps the biggest ticket item on the agenda, and while there have been vague overtures from both political parties in the weeks leading up to the opening of legislative discussion, state departments of transportation seem find themselves nonetheless on wobbly ground, unsure whether to take a watch-and-wait stance, or to hedge their bets against a worse-case scenario and begin making preemptive decisions about present, pending and planned infrastructure projects.
 
One of the major sticking points on funding is the question of whether or not to increase the present federal gas tax in order to flood the presently drying highway fund. Republicans don’t want it, Democrats don’t mind it, but both parties have not been able to come up with a viable, sustainable alternative that does not inordinately subject another piece of the national infrastructure puzzle to bending under the strain of lowered fiscal resources. Case in point: the Democratic characterization of the GOP’s notion to shift sales tax revenue from transportation projects back into transportation where it presently aids schools and socials services, among other entities.
 
Where this is all going has the beat and cadence of a plotted supermarket thriller. And in some corners, the idea of progress is being made to sit in the way-way-back in deference to simple maintenance.
 
In Idaho, DOT officials have recently expressed concerns that the present 25 cents per gallon tax will not buy nearly what it did in the 1990s. "The issue is aging infrastructure with insufficient resources to maintain it, let alone to improve it," said Bruce King, Idaho Transportation Department. While maintenance and construction costs have continued to climb, taxes, from which at both federal and state levels under roads and bridges work, have remained stagnant. Concerns have been voiced in the state legislature that pending projects may have to be put off, perhaps indefinitely.
 
State Rep. Linden Bateman was recently quoted as saying, "We just have to face it and have an increase in gas taxes and this will be an ideal time to do it as gas prices are going down. But we've got to bite the bullet."
 
In Oklahoma, the DOT is strengthening its defensive line against what it expects to be yet another attempt to cut its funding. ODOT Executive Director Mike Patterson stated simply, “Our game plan, it doesn’t contain much offense. Our game plan is primarily defense.” And why? Because in the last legislative session, a committee substitute to a bill that survived the Senate Appropriations Committee wanted to take half the annual $59.7 million in funding that ODOT had been receiving each year for roads and bridges and redirect it to education. While the bill never came to anything, the lingering memory of those struggles, married to the overall murmurs of funding problems, have Petersen and his colleagues reared to put up a defense. “We’ve already heard some conversation about that this session,” Patterson said.
 
Roads & Bridges previously reported on Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’ plan calling for $1 trillion in funding for a national recovery and restoration initiative. In the state of Arizona, such a bold suggestion, while greeted nicely, has done nothing to quell concerns about a severe lack of funding going into the New Year. Declining gas tax revenues, caused by falling gas prices, have led to a state that needs $6 billion just for roads maintenance but looks to have only $500 million for that purpose. Moreover, the state DOT is facing a shortfall of needed improvement-related dollars as it prepares its 2015-2016 budget.
 
Where will all this lead? If Arkansas and Kentucky are any indication, it will lead to work stoppage, job loss and possibly hazardous roads and bridges in the very near future.

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