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Transportation leaders warn of funding shortfalls

Rep. Peggy Wilson to seek voter approval for new transportation fund

Posted: September 5, 2011 - 12:02am

Alaska’s political leaders are proud of the state’s lowest-in-the-nation gasoline tax, but the state’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities say Alaska is failing to adequately fund road maintenance and new construction.

The department’s comments, made in its annual report released last week, says things will get worse as anticipated federal budget cuts get worse as the nation makes paying down debt a top priority.

The DOT’s 2010 Annual Report says Alaska has need of $1.4 billion a year in transportation spending, mostly for roads but also for ferries and airports.

That amount includes the cost of addressing a project backlog and future needs.

According to the report, that $1.4 billion is “roughly twice the amount of funding the state currently spends in its transportation program.”

DOT commissioner Marc Luiken presented the report.

House Transportation Committee Chair Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, agreed with the annual report’s concerns and said the coming reality must be addressed.

“We’ve got to start planning for the future in this state, no matter what happens with the economy,” she said. “whether it keeps going or whether the bottom drops out, we’ve got to be prepared for the future.”

Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, did not return phone calls last week.

Wilson has proposed the state establish a dedicated transportation fund to meet future needs, and begin by funding it with current revenues from transportation and $1 billion in general fund money.

The annual report says one of the state’s biggest concerns is that money from the federal government, on which Alaska relies disproportionately heavily, is unlikely to continue to flow to Alaska the way it once did.

“Federal funding, which historically has comprised about 80 percent of the state’s annual transportation program, is likely to decline in pace with expected federal budget reductions, including a likely reduction in earmarks,” the report said.

Southeast regional planner Andy Hughes said the state already was seeing the decline in earmarks, and it was only going to get worse as older earmarks expire with no new ones replacing them.

The DOT report notes that the nation’s 18.4 cents-per-gallon is shrinking dramatically as a percentage of motorist costs. In Juneau, it pointed out, gasoline prices have risen from approximately $2 a gallon in 2006 to more than $4 earlier this year while the tax per gallon remained the same.

At the same time, total miles driven has declined in recent years, while higher mileage vehicles means fewer gallons are sold, further decreasing gasoline tax revenues.

“The best we can say is the future funding picture is uncertain,” Hughes said.

Wilson said her proposed Alaska Transportation Infrastructure Fund would firm up that picture and help ensure the state could keep its economy going.

“The only thing we have in this state are natural resources, and we don’t have roads to those resources,” she said. “We haven’t built a new road in 30 years.”

She called the potential decline in federal road funding “scary,” and defended the fact that Alaska gets several times as much gas tax money back from Washington, D.C., as its citizens pay in.

Alaska is a new state, she said, and the federal government built the transportation infrastructure in many states before Alaska reached statehood.

“By rights the federal government should be paying for its part of our infrastructure as well, but the feds are not in a position to be able to do that now.”

Wilson’s proposal included a package of legislative measures which would create and appropriate money for the new fund, as well as sending it to voters for approval.

The Alaska Constitution prohibits dedicated funds without voter approval, which Wilson’s bill would seek.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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