By Jen Rini
As the Delaware legislature considers a gas tax hike to bolster its diminishing infrastructure fund, a major transportation overhaul on the federal level is in the works.
The U.S. Senate is wrestling with a $100 billion transportation bill that guarantees funding over six years to reauthorize federal-aid highway and highway safety construction. It’s estimated that spending on highway programs would come to $38.44 billion in 2015 and rise to $42.59 billion by 2020.
Funding in the current transportation bill is set to expire Sept. 30.
The federal transportation funds are crucial, said Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., one of the sponsors of the Senate bill, since many of the states’ projects are funded with an 80-20, federal to state match.
Large projects in Delaware, facilitated by the Delaware Department of Transportation, would be at risk if the federal funding were to cease. Currently, $36.5 million invested in current projects in the construction phase could be halted, including the major Del.1, I-95 interchange in the Wilmington area and U.S. 13 intersection improvements in Seaford.
Additionally, projects with that 80-20 split ready to be advertised for bid would not be able to go out to bid, including the $14.6 million West Dover Connector. The connector, eight years in the making, would tie west Dover with the center of the city.
Sen. Carper said the easy fix is not just borrowing money from other countries or from the banks.
“We frankly have enough of that,” he said, adding that investing overseas might not be beneficial.
“I don’t like the idea of us being beholden to China for anything.”
In order to generate revenue, lawmakers have been exploring raising the federal gas tax, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since the 1990s. Currently the tax sits at about 18 cents.
It could be beneficial to raise the tax either 3- cents or 4- cents a year for the next six years, Sen. Carper said, and then tie the tax to the consumer price index.
However, he asserts that gas tax revenue may not be the best bolster for an economy.
“I think long-term the gas and diesel tax are not the answer,” he said.
Cars and trucks are becoming more fuel efficient, especially with the growth of electric and fuel cell vehicles, Sen. Carper explained, so the gasoline tax will not long pack such a punch.
States should experiment with either increasing or introducing new road fees to stabilize the market.
At the end of the day the states and federal government should work in partnership, he said, and it is crucial for the states to be able to generate the federal match.
“You don’t want to leave 80 cents on the table when it only costs 20 cents to get here,” Sen. Carper said.