State budget shortfalls threaten road projects

Severe budget shortfalls projected for almost every state in the nation next year may effectively cripple millions of dollars worth of vital road construction and rehabilitation projects. Collectively, state governments face more than $50 billion worth of shortfalls in 2003, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal. California is facing the largest projected deficit, between $12 billion

Severe budget shortfalls projected for almost every state in the nation next year may effectively cripple millions of dollars worth of vital road construction and rehabilitation projects.

Collectively, state governments face more than $50 billion worth of shortfalls in 2003, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal. California is facing the largest projected deficit, between $12 billion and $20 billion next year, followed by New York at $10 billion, Texas at $7 billion, and Massachusetts and Virginia tied at $2 billion.

Former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff told The Houston Chronicle that the sheer size of those deficits will force state legislators to make cuts no one wants in schools, law enforcement and especially in transportation projects. He said he has lost hope that tax revenues will rise fast enough to ward off painful cuts in services, noting that the economic downturn, the September 11 terrorist attacks and the stock market decline in the wake of corporate fraud scandals has exacerbated state budget problems.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner has said his state's budget deficit is so acute that he has directed the Virginia Dept. of Transportation to scale back its construction program to match existing and projected financial resources. That means suspending or delaying more than $250 million in previously approved construction or maintenance costs due to a lack of financial resources, according to his administration.

Road construction projects have also taken a hit at the federal level, as the Bush Administration attempts to control rising federal deficits, projected to top $159 billion next year. The administration called for a $8.6 billion cut in federal highway funding in February, partly because of a dip in federal motor fuel and related transportation taxes as reported by the U.S. Treasury.

"These cuts could not come at a worse time," said William M. Wilkins, executive director of The Road Information Program (TRIP), a Washington-based advocacy group. "This is a double whammy in many states because it means that state departments of transportation could lose both state and federal funding for needed transportation programs."

TRIP's concern is that scaling back road construction will increase the negative economic effects of traffic congestion. TRIP said the cost of traffic congestion to the U.S. economy was about $78 billion in 1999, more than triple the $22 billion it cost in 1982. Also, since 1970, vehicle miles traveled have increased 123% on U.S. raods while road capacity has only increased 5%. On top of that, road use is expected to increase by nearly two-thirds in the next 20 years.

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