States Finding Solutions as Congress Debates Highways Funds
Members of Congress will continue to debate a long-term plan to fund the nation’s Highway Trust Fund as the U.S. Senate takes up the bill once again Monday. The fund, which expires Friday, dedicates dollars for highways and railways across the country for six years, but only provides funding for three of those years.
Without any deal, states could take a major hit on the infrastructure projects they already have underway.
“I have to stop somewhere about 350 road projects immediately. It would cost us about $1.2 billion immediately,” Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said Saturday. “It would be a disaster.”
McAuliffe joined 23 other governors, including Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, gathered at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs over the weekend for the National Governors Association’s summer meeting and while road funding wasn’t on the agenda, it wasn’t far from anyone’s mind.
“We need some predictability,” Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear said. He added he had made that message clear to his Congressional delegation, which includes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who has worked to negotiate the long-term deal.
A lot needs to happen before that deal is finalized. Members of the Senate would have to approve it, send it to the House of Representatives for debate and approval and, finally, Pres. Obama would need to sign the measure before the July 31 deadline. Leadership in the House has already made it clear they prefer another short term solution to give themselves more time to negotiate.
With the possibility of another short-term deal, or no deal at all, states are stepping up and taking action on their own.
This year, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard approved new funding measures at the state level.
“We raised our gas tax by 6 cents a gallon. We raised our vehicle excise tax from 3 percent to 4 percent, that’s the tax when you purchase a vehicle,” Daugaard said. “We also raised our vehicle licensing fees and all those dollars will be aggregated and spent in part on state and U.S. highways and in part on country roads and bridges.”
A Republican, Daugaard added he sees the reluctance of Congress to raise the federal gas tax, a tax rate that hasn’t increased since 1993, but, he said, “the unwillingness of Congress to look at that as a part of the solution is actually surprising.”
On July 1, Oregon began a pilot program to test a vehicle miles traveled tax. Five-thousand volunteers will have trackers placed in their cars to keep track of miles, paying 1.5 cents per mile. Any tax a participant pays in the gas tax will be deducted from their final miles rate so volunteers are not double charged.
“Obviously with vehicles traveling more miles per gallon, we have to look for alternative sources for funding,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said, adding the program was “worth a shot.”
North Carolina is a state dealing with rapid expansion and congestion in major cities. To combat the issues, Gov. Pat McCory is proposing a road bond, an idea West Virginia lawmakers have floated in recent months.
“I’ve got a $2.8 billion bond proposal for roads and infrastructure that I hope to have on the ballot for November so I can speed up the construction of roads that have been delayed for decades,” McCory said.
“I’m moving on with or without the federal government.”
Gov. Tomblin, like many of his colleagues, is hoping Congress can find a long term solution for road funding, but in the meantime, he met with Senate President Bill Cole and House Speaker Tim Armstead to discuss possible solutions for West Virginia roads.
In a meeting last month, Tomblin asked the Legislative leaders to go to their members and find things they could agree to in the upcoming legislative session.
“I’m hoping if there are those things that the two houses can agree to and my office can agree to that we can join together on a bi-partisan basis to try to raise some additional money,” Tomblin said.