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Governors not waiting for transportation help

Finding money for highways becoming bipartisan, state-level task

The Columbian
Published: July 24, 2015, 5:00pm

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — As Congress considers a long-awaited transportation funding bill, some Republican governors as well as Democrats say they aren’t waiting to raise or borrow money to fix or build roads, bridges and highways.

Federal lawmakers should look at funding options like raising the federal fuel tax, since many states have had to increase their own, some state executives at the National Governors Association meeting said Friday.

“I guess the message for Congress is: We understand that’s not popular,” said Republican Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who signed a bill in 2013 to raise the state fuel tax. “But we did it anyway, and took the political hits that go with that.”

The federal gas tax, 18.4 cents a gallon, and the diesel fuel tax, 24.4 cents a gallon, were last increased in 1993. But Americans drive less per capita, cars are more fuel-efficient and construction costs have risen, driving down the amount of revenue from the taxes.

The money available to states from the Federal Highway Trust Fund has declined 3.5 percent during the five-year period ending in 2013, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press.

Seeking more state cash to patch up highway infrastructure is getting bipartisan support. GOP governors in Georgia, Iowa, South Dakota and Utah are among those who have approved road tax increases. Other Republican-leaning states, including North Carolina and Michigan, are still looking at ways to draw in more money for their roads.

In Washington, the Senate agreed Wednesday to take up a sweeping transportation bill that would authorize programs for six years but provide only enough to pay for programs for three years. The action came about a week before a cutoff of highway and transit aid to states.

If federal authority to fund transportation programs is allowed to expire July 31, in the middle of the summer construction season, the Transportation Department would lose its ability to process promised highway and transit aid to states.

In North Carolina, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory wants to present voters a referendum in November on whether to borrow up to $2.8 billion for infrastructure projects.

“I’m moving on, with or without the federal government, knowing that we have a responsibility,” McCrory said.

In Michigan last month, the state Senate narrowly cleared a $1.5 billion package to improve roads by raising fuel taxes and redirecting money from elsewhere in the budget. That’s after voters in May soundly defeated tax increases that would have injected $1.2 billion more annually into roads. GOP Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-led Legislature put the measure on the ballot.

Georgia Republican Gov. Nathan Deal approved a package in Georgia this year to raise $900 million from gas and hotel taxes to maintain roads and bridges.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, both Republicans, also signed off on gas tax increases this year. GOP Utah Gov. Gary Herbert gave the go-ahead to a package that should draw $100 million more in gas taxes over two years, while letting cities and counties propose raising local sales taxes by 0.25 percent to pay for their transportation needs.

Many Utah cities and counties are considering putting those proposals in front of voters this fall.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, said he is amazed that federal lawmakers shy away from even discussing adding a penny or two to the federal gas tax.

“It is a user fee on transportation users,” he said, “but there’s no stomach up there for them to even discuss that issue.”