Flawed Alabama highway bill still needed

By Staff
The Montgomery Advertiser
The Alabama Senate has, at least for the time being, derailed a proposed constitutional referendum that would set aside $100 million per year for 10 years from the Alabama Trust Fund to be used for road and bridge construction in the state.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, has been essentially the only legislation that the Senate has considered for the first three weeks of the session.
But Barron and his supporters were not able to overcome a filibuster by opponents of the proposal.
An attempt to override the filibuster fell one vote short on Tuesday. But Barron may bring the bill back up later in the session.
As written, this bill has several flaws. For instance, it is being sold as a stimulus plan to create jobs.
As a jobs stimulus, it is horrible. It would not create the first job until months down the road after the public has had a chance to vote on it. And it makes no sense to have a job stimulus plan that lasts for a decade.
The bill also could open the way for legislators to pressure the Department of Transportation on which projects to fund.
But despite those flaws, Barron's bill may have been the only realistic way over the next few years for the state and counties to have the money to address major backlogs in highway projects and maintenance.
Consider what has happened to revenues from the state's gasoline tax over the past half dozen years.
Alabama imposes a tax on the amount of gasoline purchased, not on the price of a gallon of gasoline.
That means as gasoline prices go up, pushing consumers to use less, Alabama's revenues stagnate.
Six years ago, in fiscal 2003-04, the state's portion of the gasoline tax generated about $406 million. Over the ensuing years, the revenue from the gasoline tax has fluctuated to a high of $412 million in fiscal 2006-07 to a low of $403 million in fiscal 2008-09, according to state Revenue Department figures.
Just to have kept up with inflation over the past six years, the gasoline tax would have had to generate an additional $70 million last year.
Like all states, Alabama gets much of its highway revenues from the federal government. But most of that revenue has to be matched by federal funds.
Clearly the state cannot continue long term with its prime source of state revenue for highway construction and maintenance stagnant.
In addition, county governments face a major backlog of maintenance and needed improvements in county roads and bridges.
Eventually, Alabama needs to address how it raises revenue for highways. But the Legislature could be years away from agreeing on how to do that. Barron's proposal at least would buy time until a better long-term fix could be found.

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