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  • Writer's pictureKerry O'Hare

Will States Lead the Charge to Fix America's Infrastructure in 2019?

It's that time of the year when state legislatures convene and newly elected governors are sworn into office. It also means that policy and budget priorities are revealed in inaugural and State of the State addresses by governors across America. Let's take a look at what could be in store with transportation funding in a handful of states in the coming months.

One of the states receiving a great deal of attention is Alabama where Governor Kay Ivey (R) won her re-election and called for a modest gas tax increase as part of her inaugural address earlier this month. This will be an interesting debate to watch unfold as the statehouse is entirely controlled by Republicans who may not look favorably upon a tax increase. However, the House Speaker is sending signals that the chamber may be willing to consider such an increase as it has not been updated since 1992. With 60 percent of the state's roads in poor or mediocre condition, action is sorely needed to address the state's transportation system.

In the nutmeg state, newly elected Governor Ted Lamont's (D) transportation advisory committee has recommended that tolls for truck and passenger vehicles be expanded to address the state's transportation funding challenges. As a candidate, Governor Lamont had supported a toll increase but one that was directed to tractor-trailers. It is unclear how far he and the legislature will go in addressing new tolls but lively debate is sure to occur.

A gas tax increase is not off the table in Illinois where new Governor J.B. Pritzker (D) was inaugurated n mid-January. Outgoing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) has recently been quite vocal about the need to raise the state's gas tax which has not been updated in 28 years. It's possible that the mayor and governor could join forces and push for a transportation funding package aimed at roads and transit.

New Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) who ran with a slogan "Fix the Damn Roads!" will now have an opportunity to make good on that catchphrase. Her State of the State address is scheduled for early February where she is likely to unveil some of her ideas. However she may encounter resistance from the legislature who already approved a road deal in 2015 that included fee increases and a gradual transfer of general funds to roads through 2021.

It's not just these states that are grappling with transportation funding challenges. Almost every state is faced with funding shortages but some have been more successful than others in raising revenue in recent years. Most transportation revenue is generated through gas taxes but hybrids don't use much gasoline and electric vehicles none at all. With the growing number of hybrid and electric vehicles on the roads, nearly two dozen states have imposed fees on them to ensure that they pay their fair share in the upkeep of roads and bridges. Since 2013, 26 states have approved gas tax increases. These actions have spanned the political spectrum as traditionally red states like South Carolina and Utah and blue states like Maryland and California all approved gas tax increases. At the local level, ballot initiatives seeking to increase revenue for transportation have been quite successful in recent years. Following in that trend, 78 percent of such initiatives were approved by voters in 2018.

Additionally, a handful of states are in various stages of studying the feasibility of transitioning from a gas tax to one that is centered on a road user charge where all vehicles will pay their fair share for the use of the transportation system. I will write more about this in future blog posts.

It may be too early to make this prediction, but with Washington mired in disfunction it is possible that the only significant progress in addressing America's transportation challenges in 2019 will be made at the state and local levels. Let's hope that will not be the case as there will be plenty of opportunity for both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to find common ground on infrastructure in the months ahead.

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