State, federal officials want stable transportation funding

Farm Forum

PIERRE (AP) — State officials in Pierre and federal lawmakers in Washington are scrambling to figure out the same thing: how to shore up funding for roads and bridges.

South Dakota Department of Transportation Secretary Darin Bergquist spoke before a U.S. Senate panel on Jan. 28 at a hearing on the need for long-term federal transportation financing. Without a fix or a longer-range solution, the Highway Trust Fund will go bust at the end of May.

So far the fund has remained solvent through temporary patches, most recently with a $10.8 billion plug in August, and lawmakers in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing pushed for a more sweeping solution.

“The federal highway program is vital to making sure South Dakota has the funds that we need to manage our state’s highways and bridges, thereby providing for economic growth and ensuring that all South Dakotans can travel safely throughout the state,” said U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, a Republican from South Dakota. “We do need an infrastructure bill … that delivers for transportation needs across the entire United States.”

Meanwhile, South Dakota officials are pushing ahead with measures to update state and local funding for transportation infrastructure.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard has put forward a proposal that raises roughly $50 million in new road and bridge funding. That includes about $40 million in state revenue from increasing the vehicle excise tax and raising the gas tax.

The plan, which was referred to a House committee on Jan. 28, would raise nearly $11 million in local revenues through vehicle registration fee increases.

State Sen. Mike Vehle on Jan. 28 informally outlined for lawmakers a proposal he’s sponsoring to raise more than $100 million in the first year for roads and bridges through a variety of fuel taxes, vehicle fees and other assessments. Vehle chaired a task force that met before the session and recommended the plan, which hasn’t had a hearing yet.

Counties have identified a more than $80 million funding increase needed for 2015 for infrastructure repairs, while state highways need a more than $140 million hike, Vehle said. To fund necessary county bridge replacements would cost more than $240 million overall.

Daugaard’s plan doesn’t adequately tackle funding for bridges and it doesn’t address hybrid or electric vehicle registration fees, Vehle said.

“The governor’s proposal, it’s lacking,” he said.

But Daugaard, other lawmakers and agriculture groups have criticized Vehle’s proposal because it raises about $9.1 million by taxing fuel used in farm equipment. They also argue that revenue increases need to be restrained enough to gain the two-thirds legislative support necessary to raise taxes.

Vehle said his planning is based on flat federal funding — not a sweeping overhaul of how Congress finances transportation spending. He said South Dakota lawmakers will have to compromise to get something done.

“We can’t be like our federal cousins,” he said. “They want to do the infrastructure, but they don’t want to pay for it.”