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AASHTO Journal

State Transportation Chiefs Urge Congress to Provide More Direct Federal Funding

The heads of departments of transportation for two western states told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee they need Congress to craft an infrastructure investment plan that provides new federal funding to help states improve their systems and meet growing demand.

Wyoming DOT Director William Panos and Colorado DOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt made their comments at a Feb. 8 EPW hearing on "Modernizing our Nation's Infrastructure." Both said the transportation networks in their states are important to the nation as cross-country routes for freight and personal traffic besides serving their own residents.

panos2.jpg Panos

Panos said his statement, which emphasized the perspective of rural states with nationally important assets but low population levels, also represented the DOTs of Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.

He said rural states would need direct federal funding rather than private financing or new bond programs that require a repayment revenue stream. "With sparse populations and extensive road networks, the cost per capita of paying off principal and interest is high in rural states, Panos said in his prepared remarks.

He also said: "Wyoming's estimates indicate that current funding does not enable Wyoming to maintain, much less improve, its road and bridge conditions. If Congress chooses to advance an infrastructure initiative including surface transportation investment, the funds would be put to good use promptly."

panos2.jpg Bhatt

Officials representing President Trump have speculated that public-private partnerships or private investment could play a much bigger role in financing transportation projects. Panos said that while his region's departments do not oppose P3s, those "and other approaches to infrastructure investment that depend on a positive revenue stream from a project are not a surface transportation infrastructure solution for rural states."

Instead, Panos urged senators to distribute any new federal funding through existing formula-based programs, and to strengthen the Highway Trust Fund so that it would no longer be on course to run short of funding in 2020.

"As part of any infrastructure effort, Congress should be alert for opportunities to strengthen the Highway Trust Fund and its ability to support vitally important surface transportation programs," he said. "If an infrastructure initiative provides short-term funding help for surface transportation but the HTF proverbially falls off a cliff" in 2020, "the surface transportation program would suffer from instability and uncertainty."

Bhatt said Colorado is already utilizing bonds and is managing congestion in some highways with tolled express lanes. But he said the state lacks the funding to accelerate many projects, and that the Colorado DOT's 10-year plan has more than $10 billion of priority projects it could invest in across if funding becomes available.

"CDOT has many financing tools available to build projects," Bhatt said in his prepared remarks. "What we no longer have is the funding necessary to finance infrastructure projects where tolls aren't viable without sacrificing the maintenance conditions of our existing infrastructure."

He said while the state needs to do its part, "our transportation system has significant federal interests, including interstate commerce and quality of life of all citizens, and we need to continue to have a strong federal partner in transportation."

Like Panos, Bhatt said financing measures are not sufficient to address transportation needs. He told the committee that "I cannot emphasize enough that critical point: Financing mechanisms cannot correct what is essentially a funding problem due to insufficient investment."

He said the five-year Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act provided stable federal funding but "did not significantly increase funding to allow Colorado and many other states to meet our critical funding needs."

Bhatt added: "I implore you to find a way to secure a significant infrastructure investment bill that will allow us to invest in long-term infrastructure projects across Colorado that will help connect economic centers and markets."

2/10/2017
Questions regarding this article may be directed to editor@aashtojournal.org.