Alabama’s road projects could come to a standstill on Oct. 1 if Congress fails to find a solution for a depleted federal highway trust fund, a state official said Wednesday.
Last week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said states would be hit with a 28 percent cut in funding starting in August if Congress fails to shore up money for highway funding. Despite the federal government transferring $9.7 billion from the general fund to the highway fund at the beginning of the year, the account is still expected to be out of money by September, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation website.
Ronald Baldwin, chief engineer with the Alabama Department of Transportation, said the state received more than $700 million from the federal government each of the last two years. A shortfall in the highway fund would mean big cuts to that check, he said, and would likely immediately end any plans for new construction projects in the state.
“We’re confident Congress will come up with a solution,” Baldwin said Wednesday. “If they don’t, it would be a disaster.”
"Anytime there’s a budget cut, we’re all going to feel the effects of that.” -- Anniston Public Works Director Bob Dean.
Or a crisis, said Beth McGinn, public relations director with the Washington D.C.-based advocacy group Transportation Makes America Work, which represents the interests of the highway infrastructure industry. McGinn said the highway trust fund receives money from a national gas tax of 18 cents per gallon. McGinn said there are several reasons the fund is running out, including the emergence of fuel efficient vehicles, people traveling less due to the economy, and a lack of increase to the 18 cent tax in the last two decades. Over that same time, construction material prices have risen by 118 percent. McGinn said that since 2008, Congress has only acted by creating short-term fixes to the problem.
“We’re advocating that Congress find a responsible, sustaining and transparent solution,” McGinn said. “The gas tax has worked for several years, but there are other solutions out there.”
McGinn said that in Alabama, 68 percent of highway and bridge projects are funded by the federal government. Baldwin said barring any plans from Congress to fix the fund depletion, the Alabama Department of Transportation would have no choice but to abandon any new road construction projects, using what money would trickle down to the state to pay off previous projects.
“Road projects might take two to three years, or longer, to complete,” Baldwin said. “So, what little money we would get, would have to go to paying off those already completed projects.”
The budget cuts would also hit local governments hard. Anniston Public Works Director Bob Dean said that while the city doesn’t receive annual allocations from the federal government or the state, it relies on matching grant funds to complete road projects. If state money dried up, it’s unlikely Anniston would receive money to fix bridges or repave roads, he said.
“Anytime there’s a budget cut, we’re all going to feel the effects of that,” Dean said. “That’s going to hit all levels of government.”
Calhoun County Engineer Brian Rosenbalm said the county receives more than $300,000 annually from the federal government. While a big source of the county’s highway funds comes from its own 2 cent sales tax, a lack of federal dollars would likely halt most, if not all, long-term road projects.
“If we’re talking about a small cut, we could adjust and manage,” Rosenbalm said. “But if you’re saying, ‘Holy cow, that’s being cut in half,’ I don’t know what we would do.”