Short Transportation Funding, States Consider Converting Roads to Gravel and Posting Bridge Weight Restrictions

While 2013 has been a big year for states considering and approving new transportation revenues, there are signs that a number of states are still struggling to figure out how to pay for maintaining their infrastructure. There’s a plan in Texas to convert some drilling-affected roads to gravel. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania has started posting weight restrictions on some of its bridges. I also have a number of other recent items below to catch you up on the last couple of weeks and provide plenty of reading material through the long holiday weekend.

Texas’ Gravel Road Plan

It looks like it’s on hold for now, but there is a plan in Texas to convert some roads in rural areas that have been affected by drilling to gravel. State transportation officials approved the conversion plan in July but Texas Department of Transportation officials said last week there will likely be a 60-day delay in converting some of the 83 miles of paved roads in the plan to gravel.

Heavy equipment used in energy production, particularly in the Eagle Ford Shale zone, has badly damaged the roads and TxDOT has only limited funds for needed repairs, The San Antonio Express-News reported. Some state lawmakers are now hoping that the oil and gas industry itself will get involved in coming up with a better solution.

San Antonio state Senator Carlos Uresti, who has argued that TxDOT did not consult lawmakers and community leaders before unveiling the conversion plan, wrote in a recent newspaper op-ed: “We want more information and input from stakeholders before the agency proceeds.”

As I’ve reported previously, Texas lawmakers required a regular session and three special sessions this year to come up with a plan to let voters decide whether to divert $1.2 billion from a reserve account to transportation funding. But that ballot measure vote won’t even take place until November of next year and it falls far short of the additional $4 billion TxDOT has said is needed annually to keep up with the growing population in the Lone Star State.

“Texas voters would do well to approve the extra road money next year,” Uresti writes. “But it won’t be nearly enough. The 2015 Legislature will have to revisit this issue and find more resources for transportation infrastructure. We can’t keep tearing up our roads for lacking the will to fund them.”  

Meanwhile, the Texas Transportation Commission was scheduled to consider a proposal this week to transfer maintenance of nearly 1,900 miles of state highways in urban areas to the cities themselves, forcing them to absorb $165 million a year in new costs, The Dallas Morning News reported.

TxDOT officials argue that although the state owns the roads in question, they primarily serve local traffic and originated as farm-to-market roads. They also say the so-called “turnback” program would give the cities more control, allowing local officials to control driveway access, speed limits, on-street parking, road closures and maintenance schedules. But opponents representing the cities say the plan isn’t really about increasing efficiency.

“It’s just the latest gimmick by state officials to avoid responsibility for providing an adequate highway system for Texas,” said the head of the Texas Municipal League, Bennett Sandlin.

Pennsylvania’s Bridge Weight Restrictions

Transportation officials in Pennsylvania hope to slow down the rate of deterioration on 1,000 lesser-travelled bridges by posting revised or lower weight limits that will restrict certain vehicles from passing over them, The Patriot News reported

Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch announced last week that over the next six months, signs will be posted on 530 state-owned and 470 locally owned spans. Half the bridges already have weight restrictions, which will be lowered by 10 to 20 percent. Schoch hopes the plan will ensure that the $3.8 billion his department has available to spend annually for road and bridge work can be spent on more heavily travelled spans.

The impact on school bus routes and other factors weighed into the final list of bridges to be restricted but they also could mean longer response times for emergency vehicles, higher costs for trucking companies, and more congestion on roads where truck traffic will be re-routed. A spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, Steve Forde, expects the bridge postings to have an impact on shale operations as well, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

Some lawmakers are also expressing concern about the impacts to agriculture.

“The agriculture area needs to be able to get products in and get products out,” said state Rep. Mark Keller. “It’s going to create a higher expense in the produce not only to the farming community but also the consumers.”

Schoch said he delayed placing the weight restrictions on bridges back in the spring in anticipation that lawmakers would approve new funding for repairs. But the legislature recessed for the summer without acting on either a $1.8 billion transportation revenue plan offered by Gov. Tom Corbett or a $2.5 billion Senate-approved plan.

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, who opposed both plans for being too steep for taxpayers, called the bridge restrictions political gamesmanship aimed at forcing the legislature’s hand to approve new revenues.

“It couldn’t be more obviously a corrupt practice (Schoch) engaged in in trying to twist the arm of the legislative branch by threatening the people of Pennsylvania with these postings,” Metcalfe said.

But Schoch, while noting that the bridges that are getting new restrictions “are not unsafe,” said he isn’t crying wolf with the restrictions and doesn’t take the potential disruption in the flow of commerce lightly. He also indicated Pennsylvania isn’t nearly as strict as some states in putting weight restrictions on bridges.

Transportation is expected to be high on the agenda when lawmakers return to Harrisburg next month.

Additional Updates on Transportation Funding

  • Michigan: Gov. Rick Snyder last week asked Michiganders to speak up if they’re willing to support investing more in Michigan roads, the MLive Media Group reported. At a televised town hall meeting, Snyder said: “We need to get more public involvement and the public speaking up to the Legislature and to me to get feedback that people are willing to make that investment. It’s not something that’s readily apparent. People are glad to complain about roads, but very few people raise their hand to say they’re willing to make an investment.” Snyder’s road funding proposal, introduced in January, failed to gain traction in Lansing and the governor has been meeting with legislative leaders this summer in hopes of finding an alternative solution. Under consideration is a plan to devote all existing gas taxes to roads and increase the state’s 6 percent sales tax by one or two cents on the dollar.
  • Arizona: Arizona Department of Transportation officials say they are shifting priorities from expanding the state’s transportation system to maintaining what they have due to declining revenues available for transportation, The Parker Pioneer reported. ADOT receives most of its state funding from the state fuel tax and vehicle license fees. But the fuel tax hasn’t been raised in 20 years and revenues have declined by $35 million over the last five years. License fee revenue is down as well since many Arizonans are keeping their cars longer. ADOT has reportedly cut $350 million in projects from its five-year plan.
  • Maryland: Fresh off the passage of a state transportation funding package this spring, Gov. Martin O’Malley this month named 11 people to serve on a task force that will look for new ways to fund local and regional transportation projects, the Associated Press reported. The panel will submit findings and recommendations to the governor and the General Assembly by December 15. Meanwhile, there was more recently about how Maryland plans to spend the $4.4 billion in new transportation funding that the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act and its accompanying fuel tax changes are expected to generate.  
  • Georgia: The director of the Georgia Transportation Alliance reflected recently on the one-year anniversary of the state’s primary election, in which voters in 9 of 12 regions rejected a sales tax ballot referendum to fund transportation. Seth Millican writes that: “It’s time for Georgians to have a new conversation about transportation. That conversation will include our elected leaders, chambers of commerce and advocacy groups, and it should incorporate the lessons we’ve learned over the last several years. … Securing additional transportation investment must be one of our top priorities. We must pursue that goal holistically and look for multiple creative pathways to success, including possible changes to our state’s governance and project delivery structures.”
  • Utah: The state legislature’s Economic Development Task Force discussed recently how to raise taxes to fund needed transportation projects to attract economic growth while not making them so high that they chase away business, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. “As transportation opportunities improve, the economy grows,” said Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund said at a hearing last week. But “if you raise the gas tax that would allow you to do more work and have better roads, that shows a negative effect on the economy. … When you think about the ‘sweet spot’ idea and correlating the two, that’s a challenge.” Utah’s 24.5 cents-a-gallon gas tax hasn’t been raised in 16 years. Municipal officials in the state are seeking an increase of at least 5 cents a gallon. Without an increase, the state would face a shortfall of $11.3 billion for high-priority transportation projects by 2040, a Utah Foundation report said.
  • Nevada: The Clark County Commission is scheduled to vote September 3rd on whether to increase fuel taxes in the county over the next three years, The Las Vegas Sun reported. The plan already has the approval of the Nevada Legislature. The Regional Transportation Commission and other transportation infrastructure advocates believe the increase would help get much-needed projects underway and to grow and diversify the area’s economy.

Further Reading

  • A recent article in Inbound Logistics looks at what MAP-21 and efforts in various states mean for freight logistics and the U.S. supply chain and what it will take to meet future demand.
  • The Washington Times had an update recently on how the Maryland and Virginia transportation revenue plans approved earlier this year are impacting gas prices in both states so far.
  • TollroadsNews dissects a brief by lawyers for the Virginia Department of Transportation, who are appealing a Circuit Judge’s ruling this spring concerning toll tunnels in the Norfolk-Portsmouth area. Among other things, the brief examines the history of tolling in the commonwealth (which goes back to 1772!).
  • Port and shipping industry officials said at a hearing this week that the earmark ban in Congress is making it hard for them to get funding for infrastructure improvements, The Hill newspaper reported.
  • Ryan Holeywell of Governing wrote recently about an innovative way Los Angeles is rewarding commuters for using transit during peak periods.
  • Plenty of folks have been reading here on the Knowledge Center about our recent Transportation Policy Academy in Portland, Oregon. While in Portland, our attendees had the opportunity to ride the city’s light rail, streetcar and (perhaps coolest of all) the Portland Aerial Tram. Now comes word that next week Portland will become the first city in the United States to implement a new e-ticket smart phone application system-wide. TriMet, the area’s transit agency, expects the new app to save millions thanks to reduced transaction costs and elimination of ticket machine maintenance.