States seek alternatives for highway, bridge funding

AP News
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Posted: Feb 21, 2015 9:15 AM
States seek alternatives for highway, bridge funding

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Frustrated over stagnant or declining federal highway funding, state officials are accelerating their drive for new taxes, tolls and fees to repair an aging road system whose historical reliance on fuel taxes no longer is providing enough money to cover its costs.

Figures compiled by The Associated Press show the total amount of money available to states from the Federal Highway Trust Fund has declined 3.5 percent during the five-year period ending in 2013, the latest year for which numbers were available. During that span, the amount of inflation-adjusted federal highway money dropped in all but two states.

The shortfall has led to rougher roads requiring more frequent, short-term repairs, suspect bridges and jammed commuter routes that simply have more vehicles than the roads were designed to carry.

In response, states are devising ways to fill the gap. Transportation funding increases could be on the agenda in as many as one-third of the state legislatures this year. That comes after roughly one-fourth of the states increased transportation taxes or fees during the past two years.

The state proposals stand in stark contrast to the inaction in Congress, where a temporary funding patch is scheduled to expire in May and lawmakers have been at odds over a long-term highway plan.

"You're seeing states all across the country that are looking to do something, because they realize you can't count on the federal government," said Missouri state Rep. Dave Hinson, a Republican who supports the idea of raising the state sales tax for road improvements.

The annual amount available to states from the Federal Highway Trust Fund has hovered around $40 billion since 2007. Even though total state and federal road funding exceeded the general rate of inflation over the past decade, the pace has tapered off in recent years as the amount coming from the federal government declined.

Roads, highways and their bridges form the basic framework of everyday life in America. They provide the crucial underpinning of daily commutes, the trucking industry's transfer of food, computers and other goods from seaports to suburban strip malls, and summertime trips to beach towns and mountain getaways. They also are generally an afterthought until they no longer are up to the task.

Governors, lawmakers, local elected officials and engineers across the country say that is where the country has arrived, with a decades-old highway infrastructure that is not receiving enough money to match its needs.

"A lot of those facilities are in need of really massive rehab, almost reconstruction from the ground up," said Jim Tyman, director of policy of at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

The association estimates that annual road and bridge spending by all levels of government is falling $32 billion short of what is needed.

About 20 percent of the nation's 900,000 miles of interstates and major roads are in need of resurfacing or reconstruction, and a quarter of its 600,000 bridges are rated as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, according to federal data analyzed by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

The flat federal funding is having an impact because states rely on federal dollars for an average of about half their capital expenses for roads and bridges, according to the association. The rest is covered with state money, which comes predominantly from fuel taxes.

Gasoline tax revenue has grown little since 2007, as vehicles have become more fuel-efficient and people cut back on driving.

To compensate, lawmakers in Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wyoming passed gasoline tax increases during the past two years.

But about half the states have not raised their gasoline taxes in at least a decade, and the federal gas tax has remained at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993. In Congress, Republican leaders have said there aren't enough votes to pass a gas tax hike.

Many states are now considering alternatives.

Virginia recently scrapped its per-gallon gasoline tax in favor of a new tax on the wholesale price of gas and a higher tax on other retail sales. The state also has turned to public-private partnerships, including a new $925 million express-lane project on Interstate 95 that was financed partly by private investors who have a long-term contract to collect tolls.

Lawmakers in Minnesota, Utah and Missouri also are expected to consider proposals this year that could levy a sales tax on fuel, allowing the states to reap more money when the price of gasoline rises. And Michigan voters will decide in May on a 1 percent general sales tax for transportation.

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