AAA HORIZONS: AAA supports efforts to invest in roadway projects
As originally appearing in AAA Horizons

By George Morse

Mounting infrastructure problems, a Highway Trust Fund dangling on the brink of depletion and a federal transportation funding plan set to expire in September are issues that will have to be addressed this year one way or another.

AAA has backed a U.S. Senate bill that would maintain the current level of transportation funding, and the club supports a bipartisan proposal by Sen. Chris Murphy, of Connecticut, and Sen. Bob Corker, of Tennessee, to increase federal gasoline and diesel taxes by 6 cents per gallon in 2015 and 6 cents per gallon in 2016.

Of 2,000 adults surveyed by AAA in May, 52 percent said they would be willing to pay higher fuel taxes per month for better roads, bridges and mass transit systems.

While asking Americans to pay more isn’t easy, AAA Southern New England Senior Vice President of Public and Government Affairs Lloyd Albert said it’s the right thing to do on this issue.

There are 1,154 bridges in Rhode Island and, as of January, 206 of these structures had been identified as structurally deficient, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Paying the bills to address these kinds of issues is going to take creativity and leadership from lawmakers, said Albert, who in late May joined U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and state Sen. Dominick Ruggerio, among others, to support a federal transportation funding plan.

The U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in mid-May approved a plan that would provide Rhode Island with $200 million annually for six years. The bill, according to Whitehouse, maintains funding levels established in the current transportation bill, which is slated to expire in September.

The bill also contains a Projects of National and Regional Significance Program offering grants of up to $50 million for significant transit projects.

In Rhode Island, that could mean work on projects such as a Route 6/10 interchange rehabilitation estimated to cost between $400 million and $500 million and completion of the northbound section of the Providence Viaduct.

“Although its plan to level-fund transportation programs falls short of an optimal solution to the funding conundrum, the re-authorization plan is clearly a quantum step in the right direction,” Albert said.

“The Projects of National and Regional Significance Program, advanced by Sen. Whitehouse, is an example of a creative idea that, if and when passed, can lead to priority funding for projects that provide regional and even national benefits to road users. The job creation component of the senator’s proposal would be particularly impactful here in the Ocean State.”

The funding bill passed by the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee needs approval from the full U.S. House of Representatives and Senate to take effect.

“Because Rhode Island has borrowed so much money in the past to fund its highway program and has so much of its budget eaten up by interest, we’re going to be one of the first states to shut down highway construction if this bill doesn’t pass,” Whitehouse said.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama proposed a four-year reauthorization proposal.

Jim Brett, president and chief executive officer of the New England Council, said reauthorizing federal transportation funding is important for the entire six-state region where climate can have harsh effects on local roadways. About 11.5 percent of the region’s bridges were structurally deficient as of December 2013, according to Federal Highway Administration statistics.

A long-term funding plan would also have economic benefits on the area, Brett said, especially in construction where advance planning is required. A 2012 study by the New England Council and Deloitte Consulting found a $1 billion infrastructure investment could create approximately 22,000 to 27,000 jobs in New England.

Albert urged legislators to keep all options on the table including an increase in the federal gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993.

“We believe that voters understand that roads aren’t free, and that they are willing to support increased investment when they know that the revenue created is going to be spent transparently in ways that improve their lives and their travel experience,” Albert said. As of early June, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimated the Highway Trust Fund was on track for insolvency this summer. The fund receives revenue through federal gas taxes.

Murphy and Corker said the gas tax hike would provide enough funding to offset current federal surface transportation spending levels over the next 10 years while replacing buying power the gas tax has lost since 1993.

George Morse is a staff writer for AAA Horizons.

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