Transportation Funding Likely to Top Legislators’ Action Lists

Statehouse watchers think this legislative session is going to be a big one on the transportation funding front.

“I think we can say for the next year or two that we’re going to see as much, if not more, activity than we saw in the last two years in legislatures,” said James Corless, director of Transportation for America, an alliance of elected, business and civic leaders dedicated to smart investments in transportation. “Frankly, that’s pretty historic.”

Corless was one of the featured speakers during a recent CSG webinar, “States to Watch in 2015: Transportation Funding.” He said after MAP-21—the most recent legislation authorizing federal highway programs—was passed in 2012, state leaders began to, “understand Uncle Sam is not going to come to the rescue for us in terms of infrastructure funding, so we’ve got to take this on ourselves.”

“We saw a historic number of states the last two years take on and pass and adopt nearly a dozen state transportation revenue packages,” Corless said. “I think again this year, as I said, out of the gates (states are taking action) pretty strong and pretty early.”

Corless said his group is seeing a lot of work across the aisle for state leaders to come up with a transportation plan that addresses the often gaping holes in infrastructure funding.

“… In our minds and our analysis, (we’re seeing) really more of an urban-rural divide,” he said. “That divide seems to be a bit more stark and honestly, a bit more difficult and challenging to bridge, though it’s possible and states have done that.”

That divide is evident in Minnesota, said David Montgomery, political reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Democrats control the Senate and the governor’s mansion in Minnesota, while Republicans control the House.

“The Republican strength is in the out-state region,” Montgomery said. “They just took over the House of Representatives on a campaign that focused, in part, on a backlash against the perceived dominance of the Twin Cities area in the previous legislature. Republicans are very loudly saying they want to focus on roads and bridges and … not mass transit in the urban areas.”

Montgomery said Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Democrats have proposed similar transportation funding plans that would raise $6 billion to $8 billion over the next decade through a combination of raising fees and taxes for roads, bridges and mass transit. Although a coalition of interest groups also supports the idea, he said, it is unclear whether such a measure can get through the Senate and House.

“The Republicans have outlined a short-term plan to provide some extra money from the general fund for immediate road needs, but they haven’t unveiled any sort of long-term proposal,” he said. “And in fact, they’ve said they’re in no particular rush to offer one. They say one is needed, but it doesn’t necessarily have to happen this year.”

In South Dakota, however, Montgomery said action in this legislative session is likely. While Gov. Dennis Daugaard ran on a campaign of no new taxes in 2010, when he ran for re-election last year, he “explicitly said he wasn’t making that pledge again, implying that transportation was something that would need extra revenue in order to fix,” Montgomery said.

“The South Dakota legislature is heavily dominated by the governor there,” he said. “The governor’s buy-in is really key to getting anything passed. With Daugaard signing on, there’s a very real chance something will get passed there. The real negotiations are over the scope and scale of this, rather than if anything will happen.”

In Texas, legislators are trying to address a projected $5 billion revenue shortfall for infrastructure.

“Gov. Greg Abbott has been in office now for about a month,” said Keith Goble, state legislative editor for Land Line magazine. “He’s called for adding $4 billion more per year for roads and doing it without raising taxes, without raising fees and without resorting to pursuing tolls and he wants to get it done this year.”

Goble said one option gaining popularity, as well as the support of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, has been redirecting motor vehicle sales tax revenue toward transportation. That money currently goes into the general fund. Another popular option also calls for ending the diversion of the state’s fuel tax and vehicle registration fees.

“A quarter of that revenue is used for other purposes (than transportation), such as education,” Goble said. “So that is being targeted this time around with multiple bills. … The governor’s idea is for calling for an extra $4 billion a year for transportation. You’ve got these two particular efforts—the motor vehicle sales tax revenue, revenue from vehicle registration fees, the fuel tax, reclaiming that for transportation—you’re getting very close to his targeted amount of revenue.”