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Free state transportation planners from federal handcuffs

John Halikowski (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

John Halikowski, director of the Arizona Department of Transportation. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Despite transportation funds coming from taxes paid by Arizona drivers, the federal government puts conditions and mandates on the use of these funds before states can be reimbursed for expenditures. Gov. Jan Brewer and the Arizona Department of Transportation have been fighting for more local control of transportation funds to better meet the state’s short- and long-range needs.

Transportation services are paid for by users, primarily through federal and state gas taxes. This funding model means the state’s purchasing power has been weakened through inflation and as vehicles become more fuel efficient. Every dollar matters, but federal policies are constraining the state’s ability to prioritize and plan.

There are 120 areas where federal funding allocations are mandated for very specific types of projects, limiting state decision-making and undercutting Arizona priorities. Some of these categories do not add highway capacity or make improvements that affect traffic congestion or safety. This lack of flexibility means Arizona taxpayers are sending cash to Washington, D.C., and receiving it back with strings attached.

These strings become most evident when planning for economic corridors of the future, such as the proposed Interstate 11, which is expected to begin in western Maricopa County and eventually link Phoenix and Las Vegas, the two largest neighboring cities in the country not connected by an Interstate corridor. This corridor would be an ideal application for an infusion of less constrained federal funds, and a way to restore additional local control and regional cooperation.

From an operational standpoint, flexibility can be used to pick up where federal funds should be applied — operating rest areas, plowing snow and other critical activities that currently fall under state funds. Because the federal government does not allow maintenance activities to be paid for with federal money, the state is required to make a significant investment using dollars that compete across a broad range of public safety responsibilities.

During implementation of ADOT’s

$100 million Budget Roadmap — a plan to cut agency expenses over two years — many rest areas were temporarily closed to help save money. This is an example of federal funding falling short. Most rest areas are on the Interstate Highway System, yet federal funds cannot be used to operate these facilities, nor can Arizona enter into public-private partnerships to offset operating costs.

Gov. Brewer and ADOT have taken a national leadership role to help bring attention to this issue at the federal level. States in the Mountain West, with younger infrastructure, are especially at a disadvantage since there is no possibility of public-private partnerships as our highways were all constructed after passage of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway Act of 1956. It is a disparity that should be corrected. Special interests have to be removed from federal funding mandates, and states must be permitted to prioritize, plan and operate in the best interests of their drivers and taxpayers.

— John Halikowski is director of the Arizona Department of Transportation.

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