JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Raising state taxes to improve roads and bridges is one of the few things many Republican and Democratic lawmakers have agreed on in recent years.
Those efforts have slowed this year, even as lawmakers acknowledge a widening gap between needed work and the money to pay for it. One reason: the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Some states are “waiting to see what direction the federal government is going to be taking,” said Carolyn Kramer, with the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.
State lawmakers across the country have proposed fewer than 170 transportation funding bills this year — barely half the amount proposed during the last post-election year of 2019, according to the association. So far, not a single transportation tax increase has passed, though several are pending.
Kramer said states are still assessing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their economies, but also are watching for a potential gusher of federal money. Numerous avenues exist for new federal road funding:
• President Joe Biden signed a coronavirus relief package that includes $350 billion for state and local governments. Some states such as Indiana and Maryland already are planning to spend part of that on transportation projects; others are awaiting federal guidance on using the money.
• Biden also has proposed at least $135 billion for roads and bridges as part of a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan. Senate Republicans have countered with an infrastructure proposal that would dedicate $299 billion to roads and bridges.
• Congress is working on a long-term renewal of the nation’s main highway program that could direct billions more annually to states.
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has urged Congress to essentially double existing funding, with a $200 billion road-and-bridge stimulus, plus an additional $487 billion in a five-year program.
The proposals could add up to more federal road-and-bridge aid than at any time in years.
“It looks like a cruise ship sitting in a pond — that’s how much money we’re getting flowing into the state of Colorado from the federal government,” said Colorado state Sen. Ray Scott, a Republican. “If Biden does get this pushed through and we have additional funding coming our way, why would we go after the taxpayer when we have ways we can handle it right now?”
While Scott wants to base any transportation plan on an influx of federal money, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis and the state’s Democratic legislative leaders want to raise fees on gasoline sales, electric and hybrid vehicles, ride-sharing companies and retail delivery services.
“Colorado’s transportation system is so far behind that we need federal investment and we need state-level investment,” said Democratic state Sen. Faith Winter.
Colorado’s gas tax has remained unchanged since 1991 while per capita spending on transportation has fallen by almost half. The new funding plan has yet to receive a legislative hearing, though Democratic lawmakers could still speed it through if they desire.
Bills to raise gas taxes already have failed this year in Arizona, Kentucky, Mississippi and Wyoming.
After the North Dakota House passed a 3-cent gas tax increase, the Senate solidly defeated it. The Legislature instead passed a $680 million infrastructure bonding plan aimed primarily at flood-control projects that also includes $70 million for roads and bridges. The bonds will be repaid from the state’s oil tax savings account.
North Dakota Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner said the lucrative oil fund makes a gas tax increase unnecessary. He said the state’s road and bridge spending could be supplemented with federal COVID-19 relief money and, if passed, a federal infrastructure bill.
“That money is frosting on the cake,” he said.
Economic restrictions ordered by governors to slow the virus’ spread provided an initial hit to state revenues. But some states have rebounded to post budget surpluses buoyed by stronger-than-expected income tax revenue and federal aid.
“You cannot sell a tax increase to the public at a time when you’ve got something like $4 billion sitting in your checkbook. That’s just not going to happen,” said Minnesota state Sen. Tom Bakk, an independent who is a former Democratic majority leader.
Unlike many types of taxes, gas tax hikes for roads and bridges had garnered bipartisan support in recent years. Since 2013, at least 29 states — some led by Republicans, others by Democrats — have raised fuel taxes. But none have done so since Virginia lawmakers passed a gas tax increase in March 2020, shortly before the coronavirus shutdowns.