“Same song, second verse,” said Scott Bennett, director of the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department, as he announced cuts in the agency’s 2015 list of infrastructure project bids due to another round of uncertainty about federal funding.
Bennett said Arkansas had to delay 15 highway projects in 2014 that were worth $70 million, because the state could not count on the feds to come up with their share as the Highway Trust Fund ran low. Now, he is trimming three projects worth $30 million from a Jan. 27 bid opening, since the state can’t count on timely federal payments as the construction bills roll in during 2015. And Bennett made clear he may need to trim more in coming months.
That is another example of how the lack of a sustainable, long-term Highway Trust Fund revenue stream is disrupting economic development by states as they try to improve transportation networks. In October, Tennessee Transportation Commissioner John Schroer announced delays of $400 million in projects due to federal cost-share uncertainty. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx urged other state DOT executives to tell Congress and the public about work they were having to delay as well.
Last July, after months of warnings about the trust fund balances, Congress finally acted to shore it up only days before the U.S. Department of Transportation would have had to cut back on its reimbursement levels to states for qualifying project expenses. Lawmakers voted for enough new revenue to last through next May.
Now, Bennett said, the USDOT is warning that the trust fund will run low by July unless Congress bolsters it sooner. “We are constantly monitoring our projections and cash flow of state funds,” he said in a Dec. 23 press release. “If our federal reimbursements are reduced or delayed, we must account for that on the front end to ensure we have adequate state funds to fulfill all our commitments.”
The three Arkansas projects being dropped from bidding for now include a major widening of a highway in parts of two counties, paving over a gravel roadway in another and replacing a bridge in a fourth. Bennett said agency officials will again evaluate the payment outlook for federal-aid projects before later 2015 bid rounds starting in March.
“The federal government is putting the states in a real bind regarding the implementation of much-needed highway projects,” Bennett said. “We are hoping that a long-term revenue solution for the Federal Highway Trust Fund can be found so we in Arkansas and across the country can continue to award planned construction projects and adequately invest in our nation’s infrastructure.”