State, local officials tell Congress short-term highway fund fix creates hardship

State and local government officials this week urged Congress to avoid another short-term extension to the Highway Trust Fund, stating that a lack of a multi-year solution to funding transportation projects creates economic difficulties. 

Investing in the nation’s infrastructure on a long-term basis makes economic sense, officials said.

“It is not only critical to the movement of people and goods, but also brings with it job creation and economic growth,” Curt Bramble, president elect of the National Conference of State Legislatures and Senate president pro tempore of the Utah State Senate, said.

At the end of May, authorization for surface transportation programs will expire and projections show the Highway Trust Fund will run out of money by August.

“A short-term extension is highly likely,” U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) said.

Fischer is chair of the Surface Transportation & Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety & Security Subcommittee, which heard testimony about the importance of a long-term reauthorization.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has estimated the nation’s transportation infrastructure faces a funding gap of approximately $94 billion a year based on current spending levels.

Giving states and local governments a predictable share of transportation dollars to fund road and bridge repairs over multiple years is key, officials said.

“The uncertainty that pervades short-term extensions makes it extremely challenging for states to adequately plan and achieve their performance targets considering that many transportation infrastructure projects require multi-year commitments,” Bramble said.

Due to the uncertainty of federal funding, Utah withheld one-third of its bid letting for the current year, Bramble said. Utah officials anticipate 25 projects with a total of $65 million will be deferred to next year.

“These delays have a harmful impact on the state’s broader economy,” Bramble said.

Bramble focused on three main themes in his testimony: Congress needs to provide sustainable, predictable funding with flexible financing opportunities; the need to continue a state-administered federal aid surface transportation program; and the need to explore alternatives to fuel taxes as a transportation funding source.

Despite owning a major share of the country’s transportation network, local governments receive a relatively small share of overall federal transportation funds, Brian Wahler, mayor of Piscataway and president of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said. 

A Pew Charitable Trusts analysis found that cities and counties spend $75 billion annually on highways and transit, just 4 percent less than what states are investing.

“Local officials know that investments in these assets must be made,” Wahler said. “Failure to do so can compromise the safety of the public, the economic vitality of our communities and the security of our neighborhoods.”

Last year the ASCE reported that of New Jersey’s 6,822 miles of major roads, 35 percent are in poor condition. In addition, of the 6,554 bridges in the state, 26 percent are considered functionally obsolete.

New Jersey roads carry more vehicles per mile per day than those in any other state, Wahler said, citing the heavy volume of freight that gets trucked through New Jersey on its way throughout the eastern half of the nation.

Increasing locally available federal transportation funds would have a tremendous benefit to regional economies, he added.

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