Transportation Funding Crisis Rages On
By Mikel Chavers, CSG Associate Editor
Facing budget cuts and dwindling funds to build roads and bridges, the New York State Department of Transportation was forced to close a bridge in the North Country, one that connects New York and Vermont. The old bridge in the Adirondacks was no longer safe for travel.
Although it was a relatively small bridge serving 3,000 vehicles a day, the impact was big—people couldn’t take it to get to work.
“It’s more than just concrete and steel; it connects people’s lives,” said Stanley Gee, acting commissioner of the New York State Department of Transportation. Gee was a speaker at a session focusing on the transportation funding crisis at the first-ever Economic Summit of the States hosted by The Council of State Governments in New York City.
The timing of the bridge closure came just as Gee was proposing the spending and road projects plan for his department, and he heard a lot of stories of the bridge closure’s impact.
Basically, Gee was told that the plan he submitted for infrastructure was unaffordable. So with difficulties balancing the budget in New York and its fate now stalled, Gee is left with no transportation budget. So his department can’t award any transportation contracts. New projects—and the jobs they create—are at a standstill.
States are living in an age where infrastructure needs are far greater than the funding available.
That’s according to Jack Wells, chief economist with the U.S. Department of Transportation. Wells was the messenger to bring the federal perspective to what state officials view as a real funding crisis when it comes to infrastructure.
In fact, the funding crisis is like a chronic illness, constantly threatening the upkeep of roads and bridges and the ability of states to pay for transportation infrastructure.
It’s been tough for state transportation departments.
State government officials in the room May 22 expressed their frustration that there simply isn’t enough money to pay for roads, and the federal government’s share of transportation funding to the states is virtually in limbo as Congress has not approved a new national transportation funding bill.
The federal Recovery Act and its stimulus funding to transportation projects helped cushion the recession, Gee said, but there are still some very real long-term funding issues.
For instance, New York, like most other states, is heavily dependent on taxes from motor fuels to fund road projects. But cars are more fuel-efficient and people aren’t buying as much gas. And with state highway funds running dry and federal highway funds running dry for that very reason, the money just isn’t there, Wells said.
So state transportation departments have had to get a little creative.
“We’re looking for innovation and creativity,” Gee said.
His department is looking to pilot a program leveraging technology to make snow and ice removal more efficient—and hopefully save some money. Systems that can forecast weather and monitor pavement temperatures could help the state deploy plows and salting trucks more efficiently.
New York’s transportation department is also looking for private businesses to sponsor contracted services, such as the HELP program, where vehicles and contract workers assist disabled vehicles and other issues that could pose safety concerns.
State Farm Insurance is sponsoring that program and the money from the sponsorship goes to support the contract for the service, saving the state money and allowing State Farm to display its decals on the HELP vehicles.
The state is also considering offering a sponsorship opportunity for its 5-1-1 traveler information line where people can get information on accidents and bus and train schedules in metro areas.
But while all those creative solutions may help generate revenue, they don’t address the roots of the problem. States are still in limbo when it comes to federal funding and still face dwindling fuel taxes, which mean less money to pay for roads, bridges and just the sheer cost of keeping them maintained.
Wells said the U.S. Department of Transportation found it would cost $121 billion a year just for maintenance of roads and bridges, and from $158 billion to $196 billion a year to improve them. That’s more than the $79 billion the nation can currently afford to spend, Wells said.
So what can be done? Experts are floating the idea of a new kind of tax to replace the gas tax. They want all folks who use roads and bridges to pay a fee for each mile their vehicles travel—a vehicle miles traveled tax. But Wells said the Obama administration hasn’t supported it, or any other new taxes for that matter.
And some experts even considered dissolving the federal highway fund in favor of putting the full burden of funding on the states. But Wells said that won’t happen because it will put more of a financial burden on states to raise their own taxes.
So the transportation funding crisis goes on and the states are increasingly frustrated with the lack of movement on the federal level.
“That’s sort of the price we pay for a national government,” Wells said.