Key transportation projects stalled by uncertain federal funding

U.S. states and local governments are postponing funding new road and bridge projects in the face of uncertainty over the availability of future federal transportation funds.

Tennessee, Delaware, Georgia and Arkansas are just a few of the states with critical transportation projects that have stalled due to uncertain federal dollars.

“States are facing this challenge of seeing congestion starting to increase again, and a need to accelerate investment in preservation,” said Rocky Moretti, director of policy at research at TRIP, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit group. “At the same time, the federal program, which is a critical source of funding, expires at the end of May and they have to be very careful stewards of the system to not commit to a project when they’re not sure the funding is going to be there.”

Heading into the summer months for most states is a critical time for moving forward with infrastructure projects, Moretti added.

Over the last six years, Congress has funded the nation’s transportation system with 32 short-term measures, including the $10.7 billion measure for fiscal year 2014 that will expire on May 31. On Tuesday, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a hearing on reauthorizing the federal surface transportation program.

The Portal Bridge, a 104-year-old rail bridge that spans the Hackensack River in New Jersey, is just one major infrastructure project that hangs in the balance. Used by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, the bridge is in desperate need of replacement at a cost estimated at as much as $900 million. “That project is basically stalled until funding is found,” said Wendy Pollack, director of public affairs at the Regional Plan Association, which studies transportation needs in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. That funding would most likely come from federal sources combined with state funds.

Some groups are advocating a gas tax increase as a long-term means of funding transportation projects, though the idea has not caught on broadly in Congress.

The American Road and Transportation Builders Association last week called for raising the federal gas tax by 15 cents per gallon and offsetting that with a tax rebate for middle and lower income Americans. The plan would fund a $401 billion, six-year highway and mass transit capital investment plan, ARTBA said.

In February, the Obama administration proposed a six-year, $478 billion transportation budget that would be financed with a tax on companies’ foreign earnings. It may face opposition in the Republican-controlled Congress.

At the state level, gas tax hikes are gaining traction. Nine states have either raised or reformed its gas tax in just over two years, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a non-profit tax research group in Washington D.C.