Lately, many people in Alabama have been discussing the unacceptable conditions of our roads and bridges, as well as the need for additional investment in transportation infrastructure. It’s a call that we’ve been hearing from business leaders and engineers for years, and, thankfully, people are beginning to listen.
One important piece of the story still needs to be shared, though.
Many of the conversations around infrastructure funding in Alabama are focused on the pros and cons of increasing revenue because fewer dollars are being collected at the gas pump and the cost of maintaining and expanding infrastructure has increased exponentially over the past 25 years. The crux of the problem is always the same, do we increase revenue or do we “tighten” our belts a little more?
First let me assure you that belts have been tightened about as much as possible, especially at the local level of government. In Franklin County, we have turned approximately 30 miles of paved roads back to gravel in the past 6 years. That trend will only get worse without stable funding. But, there’s another component to the whole revenue increase, better management scenario that never gets discussed – the use of stopgap spending measures as the chosen method for funding infrastructure. Stopgap is best described as extremely large, so called “one-time” spending measures that occur periodically over large “gaps” of time. Stopgap spending is used to totally overhaul dilapidated systems that have deteriorated into dangerous conditions from the lack of routine maintenance in the absence of a sensible stable funding source. Stopgap spending is the absolute worst and most expensive form of funding infrastructure due to its very nature. It is only applied when the condition of the infrastructure is at its worst and therefore the most expensive to repair. Some examples of Stopgap spending are the Big Jim Folsom “Farm-to-Market” program in the 1950’s and 60’s, the “Amendment One” bridge program in 2000, and most recently the Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program (ATRIP). These Stopgap programs, even though the most expensive method possible, were all absolutely necessary to save collapsing infrastructure that is essential to economic development and vital to the safety of the traveling public.
Along with being the most expensive method of funding infrastructure, Stopgap usually involves borrowing money which only adds to funding problems moving forward. The expected life of road and bridge improvements associated with Stopgap indebtedness is usually less than the term of the debt incurred. ATRIP is a $1 billion Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) administered program that allowed state and county engineers to access 25-30 years of future federal highway funds for immediate use. These funds are being used to resurface, rehabilitate and reconstruct the highest volume roadways and bridges that are in the poorest condition. Without ATRIP, we would be facing a nearly insurmountable transportation crisis. However, as timely and impactful as ATRIP has been, it’s not a permanent fix – it’s not even close.
As Stopgap spending measures go, ATRIP was a great investment, considering historically low interest rates and the fact that all the projects could be completed in 3-5 years as opposed to 25-30 years thus offsetting the natural effects of inflation. This being said, the dollars must be paid back. Specifically, as a result of the program, the state of Alabama must pay back approximately $70 million / Year over the course of the next 15-20 years.
ATRIP, the last in a long line of Stopgap measures, is almost complete. The question is now, will we continue down this path of hyper expensive Stopgap spending or will we provide a stable funding mechanism that allows transportation experts to maintain and preserve our infrastructure in a sensible and responsible manner ensuring the lowest possible cost to the taxpayer.
A good friend of mine, who happens to be one of our honorable legislators, asked me a question the other day that I think echo’s what we all want to know. He said “When it comes to tax dollars and infrastructure, when is enough, enough?” I thought about that question for a long time and then I called him back and gave him my opinion. I told him that I think we are asking the wrong question. I think the question should be “How do we ensure the taxpayer that we are utilizing his/her dollars in the most transparent, efficient, and cost effective manner possible when it comes to infrastructure?” We can do this by implementing a sensible stable funding mechanism that provides a method to offset funding gaps created by increased fuel efficiency standards, rising construction costs, and the decreasing value of the dollar. We have the opportunity, right now, to protect those Stopgap investments that have already occurred and to then break away from Stopgap spending as our chosen method for funding infrastructure.
SB 180 and HB 394 give us the chance to do just that. These pieces of legislation were well conceived and constructed over a long period of time with the input of professionals from both the private and public sector. Industry leaders and transportation professionals have worked diligently with law makers to craft one of the best funding solutions I’ve seen in my 26 years as a professional county engineer in the State of Alabama. The combination of these bills provides exactly what the taxpayer should demand: The most transparent, efficient, and cost effective manner possible to fund infrastructure in Alabama now and far into the future.
I have spent the better part of my life working closely with transportation professionals and law makers at all levels of government. I have the utmost respect for all of our elected officials who strive valiantly to make the best decisions possible for their constituents. This is one of those watershed moments that can literally begin to change the destructive culture of Stopgap spending on Alabama’s infrastructure. It’s time to take action – real, enduring action. Stopgap measures might help us deal with the issue in the short-term, but we need our leaders to step up and support real investment that gets to the root of the problem. It is both the responsible and conservative thing to do.
With these points in mind, I urge state lawmakers to support SB 180 and HB 394, and make a positive difference for Alabama’s communities.
David Palmer County Engineer – Franklin County