Transportation on the Agenda as 2014 Legislatures Convene

As lawmakers in many states go back to work this month, one of the key issues they’re likely to face is how to meet transportation needs going forward. While some states appear poised to follow in the footsteps of the states that passed significant transportation revenue packages in 2013 (Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming among them), electoral politics appear likely to play a much more significant role in the solutions they may opt for in 2014. Below are a few updates on some of the states highlighted in my post last month on the “States to Watch for 2014: Transportation Funding.” I also have details about an upcoming CSG webinar on the topic, links to recent articles about what may happen in Washington this year, news about some CSG-connected transportation folks moving on to greener pastures and a look at my dance card for next week’s annual Transportation Research Board confab in the Nation’s Capital.

Updates on States to Watch in 2014: Transportation Funding

  • Idaho: House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Palmer said recently he doesn’t expect any new transportation taxes to be proposed during the 2014 legislative session, according to IdahoReporter.com. But Palmer suggested there may be an effort to move some general funds to transportation, perhaps from state sales tax revenues. Gov. Butch Otter, who led the charge on a failed 2009 transportation funding effort, has said he won’t pursue funding increases this year. He faces re-election later this year.
  • Iowa: State lawmakers say a transportation funding proposal is all but inevitable this year but some would like to see Gov. Terry Branstad get behind a specific plan before they commit to supporting one, The WCF Courier reported. After a proposal to raise the fuel tax by 10 cents over three years fell apart in the waning days of the 2013 session, Branstad tasked Iowa Department of Transportation Director Paul Trombino with coming up with alternatives to fuel tax increases. The options he produced—including taxing the exempt red-dye fuel used in farm vehicles and increasing the sales tax on new car purchases by one percent—haven’t proven wildly popular and none of them by themselves would come close to producing the kind of revenues the state needs to eliminate a backlog of maintenance. Some lawmakers appear to be leaning toward combining a variety of revenue generators into a transportation package. Still some expect an election year to reduce the chances of a package winning approval this year. But the governor and lawmakers are getting pressure from constituents and interest groups to do something in 2014. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Tod Bowman said he would like to see Branstad send a signal to lawmakers about what he’s willing to support. “No one is going to vote for a tax increase or a fee increase if the governor is just going to turn around and veto it,” he said. “Right now, (Branstad) seems content to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. We need to see some leadership from him.” At a legislative preview sponsored by the Associated Press this week in Des Moines, Branstad gave reporters a better sense of what he might be able to support, The Muscatine Journal reported. The governor said a fuel tax increase is “unlikely” to come out of the legislature this year because “It’s not popular with the public, and it’s a diminishing source of revenue.” Branstad said he’s looking for a solution that doesn’t rely on borrowed money and that would be constitutionally protected. He said he’s more concerned about figuring out what it’s possible to get done than setting a specific amount that needs to be raised or a mechanism by which to raise it.
  • Michigan: Lawmakers anticipate they will be able to direct a portion of a budget surplus to transportation this year, much as they did in the current state budget, the Associated Press reported. While not a permanent fix for transportation funding like the stalled gasoline tax and vehicle registration fee increases sought by Gov. Rick Snyder last year, the temporary boost in road and bridge spending would be a good stopgap move, some lawmakers say.  
  • Minnesota: An update to the state’s 20-year Minnesota State Highway Investment Plan released last month said that without an additional $12 billion in revenues for transportation over the next two decades, the state’s roads and bridges will continue to deteriorate, congestion will worsen and the effects will be wide-ranging, The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported. Existing revenues for transportation are being constrained by more fuel efficient vehicles, people driving less, increased construction costs and a slowing in new vehicle sales. Half the state’s highway pavement is more than 50 years old and 35 percent of state highway bridges are more than 35 years old. The state ranks 38th nationally in the condition of interstate highway pavement and ninth in state highway bridge condition. Lawmakers are expected to look at new ways to generate revenue for transportation in 2014. Among the ideas being discussed is tying the state gasoline tax (currently at 28.6 cents) to the overall fuel purchase, rather than having it based on the per gallon price. “We need to get back to making the effort to doing the work that needs to be done on our roads and bridges,” said state Rep. Ron Erhardt last month. “Right now, it’s just patch and repair. We have a lot of things that we need to be doing, but we’re just not keeping abreast with it.”
  • Mississippi: Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said this week that an increase in the gas tax would be a nonstarter in the state Senate this year, The Clarion Ledger reported. He said he would support a bond bill, provided it’s less than $200 million. The lieutenant governor also said nearly 75 percent of the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s $900 million state appropriation currently goes for things other than repairing infrastructure and that decreasing that percentage is the key to fixing roads and bridges, not increasing the 18-cent-per-gallon gas tax. A task force led by Senate Transportation Committee Chair Willie Simmons has recommended making the gas tax a percentage of the wholesale price of fuel, rather than a flat fee.
  • West Virginia: The state’s Blue Ribbon Highway Commission is expected to finalize its report by the end of this month. The panel has reportedly identified more than $1 billion worth of improvements and new road work that need to be completed in the state. They have suggested that lawmakers may need to consider raising fuel taxes or relying more on counties to pay for highway and bridge upkeep. Senate President Jeff Kessler has proposed a transportation fund that would use revenues from the severance tax paid by the growing natural gas industry in the state.

States to Watch in 2014: Transportation Funding – The CSG Webinar

Make plans to join us on Friday January 31st at 2pm Eastern for a one-hour webinar highlighting some of the states to watch in 2014 on transportation funding. State house and transportation beat reporters from around the country will join us to talk about what’s being considered where to meet the nation’s diverse transportation needs. Register now here and bookmark this page for updates as webinar presenters are confirmed.

Additional Reading

Happy Trails

The turn of the calendar has brought with it a slew of job changes for a variety of folks whose names will be familiar to regular readers of this blog and to attendees of recent CSG meetings:

  • Ryan Holeywell, who covered the transportation beat for Governing magazine in D.C., has departed to join The Houston Chronicle as an energy reporter. I frequently linked to Ryan’s work here on the blog. He also joined us on last year’s “States to Watch” webinar on transportation funding.
  • Larry Ehl, Publisher of the Transportation Issues Daily blog and newsletter, reports that he’s accepted a position as Chief of Staff for the Port of Seattle Commission and will be putting TID on hiatus. I frequently linked to his reporting on transportation issues in the Pacific Northwest and federal transportation concerns here on the blog. He also joined us on the webinar last year and was one of the featured speakers in July at our Transportation Policy Academy in Portland, Oregon.
  • Polly Trottenberg, who most recently served as Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, has been tapped by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to serve as the city’s Transportation Commissioner, succeeding Janette Sadik-Khan. Trottenberg met with attendees at our Transportation Policy Academy in October at U.S. DOT headquarters in Washington.
  • Texas Department of Transportation Chief Financial Officer James Bass will serve as interim executive director of the Texas Transportation Commission while a search committee seeks a permanent replacement for Phil Wilson, who left the commission to serve as general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority. Bass was a featured speaker at the 2012 CSG National Conference in Austin (see here, here and here).

TRB Next Week

I’m off to Washington, D.C. next week for the annual Transportation Research Board conference. The event brings together more than 10,000 transportation professionals from around the world for five days of sessions on a huge variety of transportation topics. Among the sessions I’m looking forward to this year are Sunday’s workshops entitled “States Are Leading the Charge on Transportation Revenue Initiatives—Why Not Washington, D.C.?” and “The Present and Future of Project Finance.” Among the scheduled panelists: Oregon DOT’s Jim Whitty (a speaker at our policy academy in Portland last year), Maryland DOT’s Bruce Gartner (a speaker at our policy academy in D.C. last year), Asha Weinstein Agrawal of San Jose State University (whom I interviewed last year for my brief on the “Changing Face of Transportation Revenues”) and transportation consultant Ken Orski, whom I frequently link to from this blog. Tuesday is highlighted by three roundtables with state department of transportation officials from Arkansas, Virginia, Wyoming, Michigan, Missouri (CSG 2013 National Conference Speaker Dave Nichols), Massachusetts, Utah, Rhode Island, Kentucky (current AASHTO President Mike Hancock, who I talked to for my recent “Top 5 Issues for 2014: Transportation”), New York and Washington. Among the issues they’ll discuss: funding and financing of transportation, performance management, and evolving to a systems management and operations culture. I’ll have a full report on the TRB meeting when I return, both here on the blog and in the January 30th issue of the Capitol Ideas E-Newsletter (join the CSG mailing list so you don’t miss an issue).