State DOT Chiefs Warn of “Damage” From Congressional Delay on 2015 Funding

AASHTO Journal, 16 January 2015

A group of state Department of Transportation chiefs warned that the current short-term extension of the highway Trust Fund is creating unusual problems for states planning their summer construction programs.

U.S. Capitol

Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle said the current May deadline for the Highway Trust Fund to run out of funds and spending authority “is even more troublesome” than the one last August, because it is preventing states from letting bids for the normal springtime start of the construction season.

“The damage is already starting,” Zelle said at a Jan. 13 roundtable discussion of financing issues during the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board, held Jan. 11-15 in Washington, D.C.

That same day, state DOT executives held two more TRB roundtables on other issues facing transportation system planners.

The financing outlook panel included New York Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald and North Carolina Transportation Secretary Anthony Tata. It was hosted by John Schroer, the Tennessee transportation chief.

McDonald agreed that “the May date is more disconcerting” because her state DOT is “putting projects out the door right now for the spring, summer construction season.”

Tata said he was using part of his visit to the nation’s capital around the TRB events to meet with the members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation, “to impress upon them the importance of what’s going to happen by May 31st” if Congress does not act to replenish the trust fund by then.

Tata also said that last year he had briefed each delegation member to show them projects that would be delayed in their districts for lack of Highway Trust Fund payments, as they were running for re-election, “and that was pretty impactful, I think.”

Schroer noted that last fall he notified his state’s legislature and congressional delegation in October that he was stripping $400 million worth of projects from the 2015 bid list, due to uncertainty about when the state could receive the federal funding share for those projects.

Since then, Arkansas’ Scott Bennett, director of the State Highway and Transportation Department, announced in December he was removing three 2015 road and bridge projects valued at $30 million from a late-January bid list, and could delay more projects with bid rounds starting in March. Bennett also attributed the decision to uncertainty over when the state could expect to receive the federal share of funding for those projects.

During the TRB panel, Schroer said states “are facing a crisis” over infrastructure funding, tied to the lack of a long-term federal funding plan. “We’re not crying wolf,” he said. “It’s really out there.” Schroer said members of Congress need to “wake up and smell the coffee” and deal with transportation funding.

Although many observers think Congress at most will simply find a way to keep the Highway Trust Fund going at current program levels, McDonald said when legislators spend the political capital to raise some revenue for transportation they should provide enough money to really take care of the problem.

Schroer also reminded the audience that transportation investment advocates could visit Capitol Hill offices and congressional delegations both around the TRB meetings and during the Feb. 25-27 Washington Legislative Briefing of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

The afternoon following the financing panel, Michigan DOT Director Kirk Steudle presided over a roundtable on connected and automated vehicles and how they can change traffic systems. He was joined by California Transportation Director Malcolm Dougherty, Arizona Director John Halikowski, Utah Executive Director Carlos Braceras, and John Barton, chief engineer of the Texas DOT.

A later CEO roundtable on accommodating major changes in freight flows was hosted by Wyoming Transportation Director John Cox, who is also AASHTO’s president this year. Joining him on the panel were Kansas Secretary Mike King, Oklahoma Director Mike Patterson and Barb Ivanov, director of the freight division of the Washington State DOT.

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