By Ramsey Scott, Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — A bipartisan federal transportation bill backed by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., would increase funding by 27% and start to help Wyoming address massive infrastructure needs. But even with the increase in funding, the state would still face an uphill battle trying to just maintain the state’s infrastructure unless even more money is put into the system.
As chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Barrasso has been a champion of the America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act and helped get it passed out of committee with a 21-0 vote last week. The five-year, transportation reauthorization bill has a price tag of $287 billion, including $259 billion for infrastructure maintenance.
“The America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act makes a historic investment in our roads and bridges. It includes more money than any highway bill ever passed by Congress,” Barrasso said in an email exchange. “I am interested in making sure the Highway Trust Fund is solvent and our bill’s funding levels will help accomplish that. We will work with other Senate committees to include their sections as well.”
The bill would also direct $10 billion in an effort to reduce emissions, along with increasing the resilience of the nation’s infrastructure to stand up to the effects of climate change. It also would streamline the environmental process for transportation projects.
Wyoming Department of Transportation Director Luke Reiner went to Washington earlier this summer to testify on behalf of the bill. Wyoming would only see about a 2% increase in federal funding the first year of the bill, and about a 1% increase over the remainder of the bill.
But Reiner said having a five-year spending plan in place would allow WYDOT the ability to think strategically about funding the state’s infrastructure needs during that time period.
“Right now our intent is (the new funding) goes straight to the unfunded needs,” Reiner said. “And right now that is asset preservation. We will work to maintain the assets we currently have, because in the long run we think that’s the most cost efficient and effective use of federal and state resources.”
Reiner said Wyoming currently receives about $285 million annually from the federal government for highway funding. If the Senate bill passes, that number will rise to above $300 million.
“In real dollars that means the ability to chip away at some of these unfunded needs,” Reiner said. “Now it will still not be enough for us to catch up. It won’t make up the entire deficit, but it certainly will help.”
One of the biggest things with the proposed legislation is that it’s on track to pass before the current highway funding bill expires. Making sure there’s not a delay in funding is a major issue for Reiner, who said even a short delay between the current bill expiring and the proposed legislation passing would create significant issues for WYDOT.
“It would mean smaller projects, slower. In other words, we won’t be able to do as much and we certainly won’t be as fast. That’s the potential result and that’s why we appreciate the timely passage of the bill,” Reiner said.
Barrasso has been in talks with the Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on how to fund the massive infrastructure bill. As part of the funding model, Barrasso said he wanted the Senate to create an electric-car utility fee.
“I believe that drivers who use the roads should help contribute to their maintenance,” Barrasso said. “Right now drivers of electric vehicles contribute nothing to the Highway Trust Fund because they don’t buy gasoline. We should create a user fee for electric vehicles. An electric vehicle puts as much wear and tear on our roads as a gas powered vehicle.”
As of now the bill has massive bipartisan support in both the Senate and the House, along with President Donald Trump who voiced his support last week on Twitter for the bill. Barrasso said he and his Democratic counterparts have worked to find compromises on multiple issues on the bill.
“All Americans want better and safer roads and bridges. Improved roads support our strong, healthy and growing economy. Rural communities and big cities alike benefit from fixing our aging highways,” Barrasso said.