Editor's Report

By Hol Wagner | September 28, 2010

Highway funding — specifically, finding more of it — is a top priority in legislatures across Rocky Mountain Construction territory this year, as it should be. Hopes are high that money will be found to fund more highway improvements, but, even with public support for more infrastructure funding, the outcome is really no better than a crap shoot.

Though many of the candidates for seats in the Wyoming Legislature in 2006 listed adequate transportation infrastructure funding as one of their top priorities, obtaining such funding is quickly proving difficult. Even before this year's 40-day legislative session began, the Joint Appropriations Committee had twice slashed the one-time highway allotment proposed by Gov. Dave Freudenthal in his supplemental budget proposal, from $162 million to about $53 million. Next, a legislative committee tabled a bill that would have allowed the Wyoming Department of Transportation to borrow $200 million from the state's Permanent Mineral Trust Fund for highway improvements. Then the House Revenue Committee voted 5-4 to kill a bill that would have increased the state fuel tax by 5 cents, offsetting that increase with a corresponding decrease in vehicle registration fees.

"We are disappointed and skeptical," commented Jonathan Downing, assistant of the Wyoming Contractors Association.

Trying to remain positive, Del McOmie, WYDOT chief engineer, remarked in late January, "There's still a lot of time left." And indeed, there are (or were at that time) at least six still-to-be-considered bills relating to funding for WYDOT and the state highway system — though two provide no dollars but are for studies of funding needs. At least the issue is receiving a hearing, and state residents have taken an interest. A mid-January poll by the Casper Star-Tribune found nearly a third of Wyoming voters rank K-12 education spending as their top priority, with highways second (21 percent) and water projects third (12 percent).

In Arizona, Gov. Janet Napolitano proposed extending the term of highway bonds from 20 out to 30 years, thereby enabling the state to obtain an additional $400 million to $500 million to speed road projects. But at the end of January the state Senate was considering a bill to tap the state's $650-million "rainy day fund" to the tune of $450 million to pay for highway construction. Another bill would tap the same fund for $199 million for public school construction. Together, the two would drain the savings account.

Lawmakers, as expected, are split over the wisdom of dipping into the fund — much less virtually wiping it out. It was established in 1994 to tide the state over in tough economic times and is currently "full" for the eighth time in its history. The fund is considered essential to providing basic state services during a recession, and highway and school building during a booming economic period are clearly not within the original "emergency use" intent of the fund. Both the Goldwater Institute and the Arizona Tax Research Association oppose such uses of the fund. "They're for the Great Depressions, the Hurricane Katrinas, the North Dakota flooding of a couple years ago," said Darcy Olsen, president of the Goldwater Institute. "These are true emergencies that are unexpected."

But many Republican legislators consider Arizona's transportation funding woes a worthy purpose. Sen. Robert Blendu (R-Litchfield Park), who voted for the measure to transfer $450 million to highways, said he would have preferred to redirect the entire $650 million to roads. "We can lay pavement for the [Loop] 303 now," he said, referring to the partially completed loop freeway on the northwestern side of Phoenix. Blendu is also sponsoring the bill that would extend the term of transportation bonds to 30 years. The sooner the state builds roads, he said, the quicker the return.

Meanwhile, new Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter is preparing to do what is predecessor ("the road governor," Bill Owens) did: appoint a blue ribbon task force to find the best way to fund highways. Denver's Rocky Mountain News noted, "Unlike another blue-ribbon task force whose report has yellowed since being given to former Gov. Bill Owens in 2004, Ritter's group could very well recommend going to voters for some kind of tax increase."

Ritter has made it clear that all options are one the table. "You have to look at all revenue streams," he told members and guests of the Colorado Contractors Association at the AGC chapter's Intra-Industry Luncheon on Jan. 26, adding, "You cannot separate transportation policy from economic development. We're largely funding transportation through triggering mechanisms [that provide funds only when the economy is strong], and you can't maintain a program on that."

The director of Denver's Regional Transportation District has even suggested a "vehicle miles traveled" tax of one cent per mile that could replace or be added to the existing fuel tax of 22 cents per gallon.