September | October 2014

 

 

 

 




State Transportation Funding Efforts Unlikely
to Continue at Same Pace

By Sean Slone, CSG Program Manager for Transportation Policy
More than 20 states considered transportation funding issues in 2013 and six approved major funding overhauls. But don’t expect a repeat of that level of state activity in 2014.
That’s the outlook from reporters who cover state government, politics and transportation. Many of them said political concerns, competing priorities and other factors seem likely to derail transportation funding efforts this year, even in states that seemed poised to tackle the issue just a few short months ago.
“Right now, everybody in West Virginia is focused on poisoned water,” said Dave Boucher, capitol reporter for the Charleston Daily Mail, on a Jan. 31 CSG webinar. “So the likelihood of any sort of legislation from the governor on transportation is slim to none.”
That wasn’t always the case.
A blue ribbon commission on highways formed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last year issued recommendations that were expected to form the basis for legislation during the 2014 session.  Commission members considered several policy options, including increased tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike, increased fees, redirected sales tax revenues and bonding. But once the extent of a January chemical spill and lingering concerns about its impact on the water supply became apparent, that part of the state’s infrastructure took precedence.
In Idaho, gubernatorial politics is making new transportation funding less likely this year, despite support in years past from Gov. Butch Otter, who faces re-election in 2014.
Dan Popkey, political columnist for The Idaho Statesman, said local governments, highway districts, labor and the Associated General Contractors trade association revived a coalition and started to build ground support for transportation funding once the economy began to improve.
“They hoped that 2014 was going to be the year,” Popkey said. “But in October, the governor got a Tea Party challenger … and that was the end of it basically.”
In December, Popkey said, Otter was asked about his top priority for the state in 2014. “His answer was ‘gettin’ me re-elected.’”
Indeed, unlike in 2013 when few state elections were in play, incumbency is likely to play a significant role in whether states take on controversial issues like tax increases to fund transportation, said Dan Vock, who tracks transportation and other issues for Stateline, a national news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
“Thirty-six governors’ seats will be determined this year, so a lot of leaders have other things on their minds, namely re-election,” he said. “Legislators (are) the same way.”
With 46 states holding legislative elections this year, he said, “there’s a lot going on that might take legislators’ attention away from this issue.”
The webinar included plenty of examples of states where transportation appears likely to take a backseat this year despite groundwork laid earlier. Among them:
State leaders also face uncertainty about the federal transportation program and the dwindling Highway Trust Fund. If Congress does not act in the next few months, states could face substantially reduced federal transportation funding, perhaps sooner than many expect. But Vock doesn’t expect that to be a determining factor in whether states take action on transportation revenue needs this year.
“I think legislators are aware of that,” he said. “I’m not sure that they’re as aware of how imminent this could be as far as the shortfalls in federal transportation funding. … That uncertainty can work both ways, but I think mostly it’s (about) limited time and limited attention this year and limited leadership so far by the governors. Of course that could change.”

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