Agreement on Transportation Revenue Plans Still Elusive in Pennsylvania, Michigan

It has already been a big year for states considering transportation revenue plans and while many state legislatures have long since folded up their tents for 2013, there is still a chance that a couple of other states could get something over the finish line before year’s end. Among them are Pennsylvania, Michigan and Washington, where funding plans that were under consideration earlier this year could be in for some substantial changes this fall.

  • Pennsylvania: The state legislature is scheduled to return to Harrisburg following its summer break on September 23, and more than two months after lawmakers failed to agree on a plan to raise billions for transportation, the prospects of a deal appear as murky as ever, the Associated Press reported. In the interim, the state transportation department has announced new weight restrictions on 1,000 state and local bridges (a move that is raising the ire of many, according to a report in The Philadelphia Inquirer this week). The Senate Transportation Committee has also held a series of hearings around the state to warn of the dangers of failing to act on infrastructure investment. Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch said there is still disagreement over the proper level of spending and how much money will be earmarked for mass transit. Schoch said Gov. Tom Corbett would sign any bill that would generate at least as much as his own proposal, which would raise $1.8 billion a year after five years. The state Senate passed a $2.5 billion-a-year plan, while a $2 billion House proposal made it through committee but didn’t get a floor vote before lawmakers left town. House Republicans are promising to draft a new approach this fall. Fiscal conservatives in the caucus are likely to balk at anything resembling a tax increase. Meanwhile, Republican Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi told the AP the transportation issue remains his caucus’ top priority but he wants a complete package since it could be the last major transportation funding bill in Pennsylvania for a decade or more. “The state can’t afford to take a half-measure now and have the state suffer for the next 10 years (for) our failure to act,” he said.
  • Michigan: It looks like Gov. Rick Snyder may be backing off his plan for higher gas taxes and license plate tabs to raise an extra $1.2 billion for road and bridge maintenance in the state, the Associated Press reported this week. But Snyder said lawmakers could still replace the state’s flat per-gallon fuel tax with a percentage levy based on the wholesale price of fuel if the swap was deemed revenue neutral, at least to start. “We may not get a total comprehensive solution, but are there good things we can still do about improving roads?” he said in an interview with the wire service. Snyder’s plan to increase gas taxes and license plate fees has failed to gain traction this year and some lawmakers have discussed putting a sales tax increase on the ballot instead.
  • Washington: Gov. Jay Inslee said recently he’s willing to set aside discussion of a new Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River if it would help reach agreement on a multibillion-dollar transportation package, The Seattle Times reported. Inslee is floating the idea of a transportation-focused special session in November. Oregon is reportedly seeking to move forward on its own with the Columbia River Crossing. Controversy over the design of the bridge derailed talks on the transportation bill in Washington this June.

Other State Transportation Funding Updates

  • Colorado: A coalition in the Centennial State is floating the idea of a statewide sales tax to raise $600 million annually for road repair and construction and transit projects across the state, The Denver Post reported this month. MPACT64—a coalition that includes the Metro Mayors Caucus and groups with names like Progressive 15, Action 22 and Club 20—is suggesting placing a tax question on the 2014 ballot which, if approved, would install a 0.7 percent sales tax for a 10-year period. Two thirds of revenues from the tax would go into the state’s Highway Users Tax Fund with the other third going to transit projects.
  • Florida: Mileage-based road user charges like those being explored in Oregon and elsewhere were discussed at the recent Florida Leaders Summit in Orlando, WMFE News reported. Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad, who moderated a panel at the summit, told attendees “The technological solution is already there if you want to go to some sort of per mileage-based fee. The issue is more public policy, privacy concerns and the liberties we take for granted. We’ve got to balance those issues.” Prasad predicted it could be a decade or more before such a program could be adopted in the Sunshine State.
  • Kansas: At a transportation summit in Emporia this month, state officials said local governments will need to share more of the cost of major road projects in the future, The Wichita Eagle reported. Wichita-area officials said their takeaways from the meeting were that future state-local partnerships for roads, bridges and other projects will require more local dollars as state government continues to cut spending and that projects will have to be evaluated more closely in the future for potential economic impact. But that could set up an urban-rural struggle in Kansas similar to what other states have faced, some believe. “The higher percentage that is offered up from the local end, the more attractive it is and the higher probability there is to create the funding package necessary for that project,” said Kansas Deputy Transportation Secretary Jerry Younger. State transportation officials have also suggested that expanded tolling on some facilities could also get a look in the years ahead.   
  • Kentucky: A research report from the University of Kentucky’s Kentucky Transportation Center analyzes how past transportation revenues were generated and how they were spent. The report says revenues in the state’s Road Fund “should be adequate to support a continuation of historical spending levels for the next five years.” But the report goes on to ponder a couple of questions: “Is it sufficient to simply continue spending at historical levels? Have those spending levels been adequate to meet the needs of our transportation system? There is evidence in this report that the answer to that question, at least for specific areas of spending is no. What is still unclear is whether these spending shortfalls are due to an overall lack of funding or due to the way the available funding is allocated among competing needs.”
  • Minnesota: MINNPOST checked in this week with Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle, who as you’ll recall has been tasked by Gov. Mark Dayton with trying to convince Minnesotans that their transportation tax dollars are being well spent and that additional dollars are needed to improve the state’s transportation system. Zelle tells MINNPOST’s Steven Dornfeld he’s being “very explicit about the need” for increased transportation dollars as he travels the state to make the case. Zelle is hoping it will build toward the legislature approving new revenues in 2014. “I sure hope they do,” he said. “Whether it is next year or the following session is going to be up to the legislature and the governor to figure out. … As part of the administration, I’d say let’s at least have our eyes wide open, understand what is at stake and build as much awareness as possible about how critical transportation is—how we get a really solid economic return on these investments.” MINNPOST also talked with Lee Munnich of the University of Minnesota, who I interviewed for an upcoming brief on the “Changing Face of Transportation Revenues.”
  • Mississippi: As I mentioned a few weeks ago, state Sen. Willie Simmons is chairing a Senate transportation study committee that is trying to come up a plan to raise the hundreds of millions transportation experts say are needed to repair roads and bridges in the state and build new ones. Well, the Associated Press reported this month that Simmons isn’t finding much support in the broader business and civic leadership of the state for a plan to increase fuel taxes and reduce sales tax exemptions. Moreover, the representatives of business groups who actually sit on the Simmons panel are among those fighting the tax increases most aggressively. “They’ve repeatedly said that they suspect (the Mississippi Department of Transportation) is deeply inefficient and they don’t want to pour any more money down a rat hole without outside assurance that it won’t be wasted,” the AP reported.