A third of states boost funding for road repairs

David A. Lieb
Associated Press

Jefferson City, Mo. — While Congress remains stalled on a long-term plan for funding highways, state lawmakers and governors aren’t waiting around.

Legislation raising Iowa’s fuel tax by 10 cents a gallon should raise $215 million annually for roads and bridges there.

Nearly one-third of the states have approved measures this year that could collectively raise billions of dollars through higher fuel taxes, vehicle fees and bonds to repair old bridges and roads and relieve traffic congestion, according to an analysis by the Associated Press.

The surge of activity means at least half of the states now have passed transportation funding measures since 2013.

And the movement may not be done yet.

Tennessee’s governor is in the midst of a 15-city tour highlighting the state’s transportation needs. North Carolina lawmakers are debating a road-bonding proposal. And legislators are returning to work this week in California and Michigan with transportation funding on the agenda.

“I don’t know of a state that’s not having the conversation” about raising revenue for transportation, said Iowa Transportation Director Paul Trombino III, who is vice president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation.

The Michigan Legislature has wrestled with different ways to raise an additional $1.2 billion annually at the urging of Gov. Rick Snyder. The Republican-controlled House has been reluctant to try to raise taxes since state voters in May overwhelmingly rejected Proposal 1, which would have increased the 6 percent sales tax to 7 percent as well as hiked fuel taxes.

About 20 percent of the nation’s 900,000 miles of interstates and major roads need resurfacing or reconstruction, according to one analysis of federal data.

In July, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley cast the tie-breaking vote on a Senate package that would raise the state’s 19-cents-a-gallon gas tax by 15 cents. The 15-cents-a-gallon diesel tax also would climb to 34 cents a gallon.

The proposed $1.5 billion annual transportation funding bump would consist of an $822 million tax hike and $700 million in spending cuts. The House has yet to act on the legislation.

The widespread focus on transportation funding comes as state officials are becoming frustrated by federal inaction in helping to repair roads and bridges described as crumbling, aging and unsafe.

About 20 percent of the nation’s 900,000 miles of interstates and major roads need resurfacing or reconstruction, according to one analysis of federal data. A quarter of the 600,000 bridges are considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are about to fall; it means they are showing worrisome problems or are no longer adequate for today’s traffic.

In many states, the new money is going primarily toward repairing old infrastructure, though some projects — such as a new four-lane U.S. 20 across Iowa — are designed to ease congestion so that commerce can flow more freely.

■In Connecticut, for example, legislators recently approved $2.8 billion of additional transportation bonding over the next five years. But that’s just the start of what Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy hopes will be a 30-year, $100 billion overhaul of the state’s transportation system.

■Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, a Republican, signed a law this spring raising the fuel tax by 7 cents a gallon and increasing vehicle registration fees. That’s projected to raise $95 million a year, barely a third of the $262 million annual shortfall in the transportation system.

■Legislators in Kentucky and North Carolina — where tax rates are linked to the price of fuel — passed measures to avert large cuts caused by falling fuel prices. But those bills didn’t generate additional money.

The Detroit News staff contributed.