Could federal gridlock stall state highway projects?

A looming federal deadline coupled with the usual Washington deadlock could stall New Hampshire’s highway construction program, which is already low on gas.Two key federal transportation-related statutes are set to expire at the end of September — one that allows the federal government to levy a gas tax and another that authorizes giving aid to states for infrastructure projects.In Congress, parties have drafted very different plans for what to do about the gas tax, with Democrats pushing for an increase, and some Republican lawmakers expressing support for eliminating the tax entirely.If the debate over the gas tax wages as bitterly as it did over the debt ceiling and funding of the Federal Aviation Administration — which resulted in a partial shutdown of that agency — there’s a strong chance that a deal may not be reached before the statutes are due to expire.Bill Boynton, public information officer for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, expects that they will at least be extended if a deal is not worked out before the deadline.”History has sort of shown that when they get closer to the deadline, at a minimum they’ll extend it,” he said. “There is always the potential where suddenly the money is not authorized and that the money is not going through, but I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet.”The Granite State annually takes in about $150 million from the federal Highway Trust Fund, which is funded almost exclusively by the federal gas tax, which stands at 18.4 cents per gallon.But if the tax stays at its current level, Boynton said the Granite State’s allotment could fall by as much as a third because the highway fund has been underfunded for years for a variety of factors.”The two highway funds, state and federal, are not performing as well as they used to,” said Boynton. “The amount of revenue that is coming in has not kept pace with construction costs and a host of other expenses associated with maintaining the transportation system.”In addition to higher construction costs — which have risen in part because of higher prices of commodities like oil and steel — people are buying less gas as vehicles become increasingly more fuel efficient, said Boynton.Also, because the federal gas tax has remained at the same level since 1993, it has not kept pace with inflation, he said.”We’re in a more constrained period than we may ever have been,” said Boynton.The long termThis comes at a time when the state DOT is suffering from budget cuts at the state level.The elimination of the $30 motor vehicle registration surcharge in the latest budget cycle resulted in a $100 million annual hit to the NHDOT, which led the department to eliminate 200 positions and reduce the highway maintenance budget by 11 percent this year and 13 percent in 2012, said Boynton.One of the biggest projects in the state — the widening of Interstate 93 between Salem and Manchester — is currently underfunded by about $250 million.”We’re dealing with a constrained 10-year plan, in which the available money will nowhere come near meeting the needs out there,” Boynton said.Even on a tightened budget, repairing red-list bridges, maintaining existing infrastructure and projects already in progress will remain top priorities, said Boynton. If the federal funding were to be eliminated, projects most likely to be affected are those that are scheduled three or four years down the line.”To put it in perspective, we’re always concerned when the federal authorization needs to be extended or reauthorized, and there are potential ramifications if that doesn’t happen, but there are also political pressures across the country to extend it,” he said. “On a broader term, we’re more concerned about long term, how are we going to continue to address our transportation needs on the state and local levels?”