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The Future of Alabama's Roads

Gadsden Times Opinion Editorial: DRIVE Alabama forward

By Gadsden Times Editorial Board via gadsdentimes.com

The Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation Investment Program has been a success across the state. It has helped pay for 14 bridges in Etowah County, greatly shortening the timetable for such repairs. The county got $11.6 million in improvements in four years, which County Engineer Tim Graves said is equivalent to 21 years of normal federal allocations.

The question is, where does the state turn next? ATRIP is winding down, and its funding was a mere drop in the bucket compared to the state’s needs. No fountain of money is forthcoming, even if Congress ends its seemingly endless debate and passes a federal highway bill.

Etowah County has joined DRIVE (Developing a Road and Infrastructure Vision for Everyone in Alabama) Alabama, a coalition of county engineers, commissioners, community leaders and others, that hopes to focus attention on the state’s growing infrastructure needs and the lack of funding to meet those needs.

Graves said Etowah County is not unique. Most Alabama counties, he said, don’t have resources to do anything other than what absolutely has to be done. “The amount of money needed to improve and preserve the county’s road and bridge network is 162 percent higher than what is currently available to perform basic maintenance,” he said. “We simply don’t have the resources to complete all the infrastructure work that needs to be done.”

One DRIVE Alabama goal is to develop a stable funding mechanism for improvements to roads not covered by ATRIP. Some counties (St. Clair being one) have enacted local fuel taxes. Gov. Robert Bentley recently said he believes the Legislature will pass a statewide fuel tax soon, possibly in the next session.

Despite the typical knee-jerk aversion tax measures generally encounter in Montgomery, a House committee in August approved a 5-cent hike in the state’s approximately 21-cents-per-gallon gas tax. The legislation got caught up in the hubbub over the General Fund budget and never got before the full Legislature for a vote.

It’s hard to argue with the success of ATRIP. We believe DRIVE Alabama should be able to make similar progress on the county level, but it will require funding, either from a fuel tax or some other source. Without funding, the program will never get out of park, much less in gear.

Alabama Roads Falling Apart; DRIVE Alabama Seeks Solutions

By Editorial Board via The Montgomery Advertiser

Alabama’s transportation infrastructure, big and small, is falling apart.

At least 15 percent of the state’s major urban roads are in poor condition, and an additional 35 percent are rated as mediocre or fair, according to a 2014 report from TRIP, a national transportation research group. Alabama bridges are in similarly bad shape, 25 percent deemed structurally deficient.

Compounding the crisis, the Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program, a $1 billion infrastructure boost by Gov. Robert Bentley in 2012 to help counties repair and improve major roads and bridges, is winding down.

Things are just as ugly for rural roads, many of which didn’t qualify for ATRIP dollars and are crumbling.

The upshot is uncertain times ahead.

“Now that ATRIP is nearing its end, many local officials and county engineers are concerned about losing the momentum they’ve gained in making much-needed improvements to local roads and bridge structures,” says Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.

Enter DRIVE Alabama – Developing a Road and Infrastructure Vision for Everyone in Alabama – a coalition of county leaders and citizens seeking sustainable budget solutions in tight economic times.

The group, which officially launches November 16, will have tough work ahead in Alabama’s no-new-taxes governmental climate.

Legislative reforms in Georgia to dedicate more funding to transportation and infrastructure projects may provide a model. The state recently “adjusted certain tag fees and zero emission credits, and also revisited their gas tax formula,” according to Brasfield, and other states have passed similar laws.

Counties could also seek a new per-gallon local gas tax to pay for road and bridge repair, but they’d have to first get legislative approval.

It’s clear additional revenue from increased or reconfigured taxes is a necessary part of any solution.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, has said he’ll seek a gas-tax increase in the 2016 session. He’s right to do so.

It’s way past time for a significant hike. The current tax of 18 cents per gallon hasn’t risen since 1993. Proceeds from it have been eroded by rising costs for equipment and materials and the influx of more fuel-efficient cars.

Again, however, there’s that huge hurdle of getting any tax increases passed, no matter how dire the need.

Brasfield is optimistic solutions will be found, saying the Legislature understands the importance of strong infrastructure and “the main issue will be identifying a method to fund these critical projects that members of the Alabama House and Senate can agree on.”

We hope he’s right.

Safe, well-maintained roads don’t come cheap and are critical to Alabama’s economic future.

DRIVE Alabama’s goals deserve solid legislative support.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley Pushes Gas Tax Hike to Pay for Road Improvements

By John Sharp via al.com

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said Friday he believes there could be enough political will in Montgomery to push forward with an increase in state’s fuel tax to pay for road and bridge projects.

“I do think the gasoline tax is one tax that will certainly be strongly looked at and I think it will be passed,” Bentley said during a speech to coastal Alabama business leaders and politicians in Gulf Shores. “People in this state want good bridges. It will come up in the next session and there is a reasonably good chance it will pass and I’m for it.”

Bentley’s comments come after an Alabama state House committee voted in August to approve a hike in the state’s approximately 21 cents-per-gallon gas tax by 5 cents.

The increase would have raised an estimated $70 million in fiscal year 2016.

The new fuel levy, had it been approved by the full legislature, would have been collected on top of the federal 18.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax that is charged to drivers throughout the nation and set aside into the Highway Trust Fund.

But the state tax increase stalled as the legislature dealt with other revenue sources to focus on patching a $200 million budget deficit. Among the increases lawmakers approved in September was a 25 cents-a-pack tax hike on cigarettes.

Bentley, speaking to the media after his speech, said he predicts lawmakers will have an appetite for a hike in fuel taxes as long as revenues go toward road and bridge projects.

“I think most people really are willing to pay for better roads, I really do,” Bentley said. “I think the people of the state understand if we are going to have new and better roads, we have to pay for them.”

Alabama is just the latest state to consider a gas tax increase at a time when federal transportation funding has been uncertain. The U.S. House and Senate are working on a final agreement on a six-year federal transportation plan that would infuse $365 billion into improving the nation’s roads and bridges. If signed into law, it would be the first long-term transportation plan approved in a decade.

States such as Georgia and Nebraska approved increases to their gas taxes earlier this summer. Other states have made similar moves to press ahead with programs to address much-needed fixes to aging infrastructure.

“We are struggling with a federal highway bill and in that federal bill (if it gets approved), you may get $100 million this year but may not get anything next year,” said state Rep. Randy Davis, R-Daphne.

The national gas tax has been the revenue source for transportation funding since its inception in the 1930s, but the federal gas tax hasn’t been increased since 1993. At the same time, improvements in auto fuel efficiency has reduced the amount of money the tax generates.

“We are paying less tax now than 20 years ago,” Bentley said.

Davis said the timing could be right for the legislature to move forward with the tax increase. Fuel prices continue to plummet, with the average gallon of gasoline in the U.S. at around $2.20 per gallon, and even lower in parts of Alabama. It’s the lowest gasoline prices have been since 2004.

Davis said a range of tax increases could be looked at. Bentley said he was unsure on the increase amount.

“Our bridges are in deplorable shape,” Davis said. “The cost of road building is up. We think this is a time to look at it and be proactive about it.”

State Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton, said he believes a gas tax could be less controversial than any other revenue enhancer.

“I think the citizens do, maybe, accept a road tax with more palatability than most taxes that have been presented in the past,” Baker said.

State Rep. Harry Shiver, R-Stockton, said he’s unsure the legislature will be open to approve any kind of tax increase. It takes a simple majority to approve the tax increase during a regular legislative session, but two-thirds of lawmakers are needed for approval during a special session.

“The Senate is just so hard to figure out,” Shiver said, adding, “While the gas prices are low now, it might be a good time to do it. I don’t know. We’ll have to look at it.”

U.S. House Approves $325 Billion in Road and Bridge Funding

By Casey Cappa via Yellowhammer

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The U.S. House of Representative voted Thursday to approve a bipartisan bill that reauthorizes the Highway Trust Fund and the Export Import Bank.

The Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015 includes a six-year transportation funding bill—the first long-term bill passed in several years. The bill seeks to improve the nation’s infrastructure through reforming transportation programs, authorizing $325 billion to fund roads, bridges and other infrastructure needs, while deferring much of the planning and decision making to state and local governments.

Representative Martha Roby (R-AL) said that this bill is important because roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure make up the backbone of commerce. Furthermore, the open process for the bill allowed for debate, which Roby believes allowed legislators an opportunity to give constructive feedback on the bill.

“It’s important for the Congress to do its job and that is to fund federal infrastructure. This is our responsibility. I believe because of the open process that has been put in place – more than 100 amendments made in order – that, when we get to the final product, it will be something that conservative Republicans can vote for,” Roby said.

Several Republican representatives have expressed their approval of the passage of the bill. Congressman Bradley Byrne (R-AL) said that the passage of the bill was “very good news for the I-10 bridge project and other major road projects in Southwest Alabama.”

Rep. Terri Sewell said that the passage of The Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act, also called the DRIVE Act, was a step in the right direction.

“By making smart, strategic investments in our aging infrastructure, Congress will create more good-paying jobs for Americans and boost commerce,” Sewell explained. “While this bill is not perfect, today’s vote for the DRIVE Act was certainly a step in the right direction towards providing critical investments in infrastructure maintenance and development.”

The bill also includes an amendment reauthorizing the controversial Export Import Bank. The Ex-Im Bank finances exports for American companies that would be too risky for traditional lenders by making guaranteed loans to the foreign purchasers of those exports. While the bank’s charter mandates at least 20 percent its outlays benefit small businesses, that rule has been frequently violated.

Several legislators, including Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), believe that it’s time to put an end to the controversial Ex-Im Bank.

“After years of efforts to reform the Ex-Im Bank, it has become clear to me that its problems are beyond repair and that the Bank’s expiration is in the best interest of American taxpayers,” Sen. Shelby told Yellowhammer. “Nearly 99% of all American exports are financed without the Ex-Im Bank, which demonstrates that subsidies are more about corporate welfare than advancing our economy.”

The bank has received vocal support from many business groups, but some conservative organizations, including The Heritage Foundation’s political arm Heritage Action, have waged a campaign against it, calling it the epitome of corporate welfare. Nick Barden, Education Coordinator for Heritage Action, said that the “open process” wasn’t actually as open as some are claiming.

“This process, praised by many Republicans for its openness, was not a full-blown open amendment process. The Rules Committee still exercised control over which amendments would be allowed on the floor, even though they allowed a greater number than they have in recent history. All of the conservative amendments considered still failed on the floor,” said Barden.

“It is possible that Republicans will vote for the bill because the process is ‘a step in the right direction.’ That may or may not be the case, but it is not worth the overwhelmingly bad policy embraced by this bill,” Barden said.

While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has refused to take up a stand alone bill reviving the bank, he appears willing to allow a vote on it as an amendment to the transportation bill.

A conference committee between the House and Senate is expected to be called, with final votes on the bill being held in the next few weeks.

Drive Alabama; initiative geared at education of road infrastructure

By Breken Terry via WAAY

Click here to view the video newscast

The Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement program has put $1 billion into Alabama road projects since 2012.

The program enacted by Governor Bentley was put in place to help local counties repave and build new bridges.

All the money has been allocated out to road projects throughout the state. The Atrip funding was a one time fix, and county road engineers believe they will soon be back at square one when it comes to funding county road projects.

“If we don’t get adequate funding for maintenance of the roads I’m going to be in the same condition,” said John Bedford, the Colbert County Road Engineer.

The Association of County Commissions of Alabama introduced a social media campaign called Drive Alabama, which stands for “Developing a road and infrastructure vision for everyone in Alabama.”

The goal of Drive Alabama is to inform citizens and county leaders about future road funding issues, and what it will take to get a permeate fix.

Bedford says apply costs to repave roads have risen substantially over the last decade.

“I’ve seen material costs go up 300 to 400 percent,” said Bedford.

Atrip money helped offset those costs, for the time being.

“We did the 80 to 20 match and the success for Colbert county we probably saw four years of projects in one year,” said Bedford.

Colbert Counties Atrip money went to building a new $2 million dollar bridge and countless repaving projects.

In Colbert County alone Bedford and his team are responsible for keeping up with 600 miles of roads. He says that is why educating people about the funding issues they face is important, and why he supports the Drive Alabama initiative.

“It’s trying to show the importance of the road system and it’s also giving a cost value to the road system and what it’s taking to maintain the state,” said Bedford.

Drive Alabama involves all 67 counties in the state. They have started their social media campaign. They have a twitter, facebook, and instagram accounts already set up.

Their website is supposed to launch in November 2016.

Houston County Roads Ranked at Top of List for Alabama

Via WTVY.com

Houston County Commissioners today are applauding the release of new road scores based on state grading. The new grades show Houston County with the highest average score in the state for the subset of roadways that qualify for the Maintenance Inspection program. Not all roadways are graded in every county and the program only grades roadways that meet the criteria for the program, in essence roads that can receive Federal funding.

“Several years ago, Houston County had the top grades for eight out of nine years before the grading system was changed and our local funding was cut. It says a lot about our staff to be back on top with the minimum funding we get” said County Engineer Barkley Kirkland.

County Commission Chairman Mark Culver said “It means safety to us! We want safe roads for our citizens and this says we are achieving that. Unfortunately, this grade is only for on-system roads. We continue to have a significant problem with off-system roads that only county funds can be used on for repair and maintenance”.

Local governments are required to contribute a 20 percent match for federally funded or on-system roads and projects and 100 percent of off-system or county roads. On-system roads are graded annually by the state.

Group Advocating More Money for Roads Includes Morgan County Officials

By Keith Clines via Decatur Daily

Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long and Morgan County Engineer Greg Bodley are part of a new group formed to increase awareness of the need for more money to improve roads and bridges in the state’s counties.

Developing a Road and Infrastructure Vision for Everyone in Alabama (DRIVE Alabama) was created to raise awareness of how limited money is for Alabama’s infrastructure with the end nearing of Gov. Robert Bentley’s $1 billion road and bridge improvement program.

Long, president of the Alabama Association of County Commissioners, said Bentley’s Alabama Transportation and Rehabilitation Plan (ATRIP) provided much of the money to replace seven bridges and improve more than six miles of roads in the county.

“There is no way these projects could have been done without this program,” Long said. “But now that the program is coming to an end, we must deal with the remaining road situations without the extra infusion of money coming in from the state.”

Bodley said the ATRIP investment of $14.4 million over three years equals about 27 years of federal money for the county.

“With our current financial resources almost exclusively going to maintenance activities, Morgan County is situated like most Alabama counties,” Bodley said. “The amount of money needed to improve and preserve the county’s road and bridge network is 192 percent higher than what is currently available to perform basic maintenance. We simply don’t have the resources to complete all the infrastructure work that needs to be done.”

Morgan County has about $10.5 million in maintenance needs, but only $5 million, primarily from state gasoline tax, is available for road and bridge work, Bodley said.

Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said most counties face the same dilemma as Morgan County.

“For years, we’ve had to piecemeal together funding packages to help counties keep their heads above water with basic road and bridge maintenance,” he said.

Brasfield said the state needs to find “a sustainable revenue source” for local infrastructure.

Bodley said changing the state gasoline tax from a per-gallon tax to a tax based on price similar to a sales tax “does seem to make sense.”

“We know there’s got to be additional revenue somewhere,” he said.

DRIVE Alabama Seeks Funding Mechanism for County Road Systems

By Russ Corey via The Times-Daily

TUSCUMBIA — Colbert County Engineer John Bedford is no stranger to crumbling roads and bridges or the lack of sufficient funding to properly maintain them.

And while the Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program helped the county replace a bridge it would have taken years to save money for, there are still many parts of the county that need help.

ATRIP provided funding only for certain types of roads. County roads not classified as major collectors were not eligible for ATRIP funding and have to rely on county funds. Most often, county funds are insufficient.

That’s why Bedford is joining other county engineers, county commissioners, community leaders and residents in a coalition known as DRIVE Alabama. DRIVE stands for “Developing a Road and Infrastructure Vision for Everyone in Alabama.”

One of the main goals of DRIVE is to develop a sustainable funding mechanism that generates sufficient revenue so counties can properly maintain their roads and bridges.

“With our current financial resources almost exclusively going to maintenance activities, Colbert County is situated like most Alabama counties,” Bedford said. “The amount of money needed to improve and preserve the county’s road and bridge network is 300 percent higher than what is currently available to perform basic maintenance. We simply don’t have the resources to complete all the infrastructure work that needs to be done.”

Colbert County is not alone.

According to the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, most counties face similar issues.

“For years, we’ve had to piecemeal together funding packages to help counties keep their heads above water with basic road and bridge maintenance,” ACCA Executive Director Sonny Brasfield said. “In order to meet Alabama’s 21st century mobility needs, we need to identify a sustainable revenue source for local infrastructure programs.”

Bedford said he sees DRIVE piggybacking on the success of the ATRIP program.

He wants DRIVE to be able to promote the success of the ATRIP program while educating the public about the need for additional revenue to adequately maintain roads and bridges. He hopes the program will help muster public support for the development of a funding mechanism for county road systems in the state.

One funding mechanism is the approval of a new fuel tax which would be collected at the state level and distributed to the county’s similar to other fuel taxes that fund highway construction and maintenance.

Locally, Bedford said he wants to work with the county’s legislative delegation to revamp the severance tax on sand and gravel so it could be more beneficial to the county.

Commissioner Roger Creekmore agrees a sustainable funding mechanism needs to be developed both locally and statewide.

Creekmore said the county needs roughly an additional $2 million annually to develop a planned road maintenance schedule.

What’s even more frustrating, as Commissioner Charles Hovater pointed out recently, is that Colbert County roads are being torn up by out of state timber operations and the county has no recourse. They also do not receive any additional money that could be used to repair those roads, which also have to be used by county residents.

Creekmore said those roads, especially in Hovater’s District 6, are not made for repetitive large truck traffic.

“Log trucks on county roads and projects like ATRIP do not help you on those rural roads,” Creekmore said.

Bedford has been trying to educate Colbert County residents about the Road Department’s plight for several months, speaking to civic groups and whoever will listen.

Henry County Reviews Road Budget, More Funds Needed for Local Projects

Road Construction Continues in Russellville and Franklin County

By Kellie Singleton via The Times Daily

RUSSELLVILLE — Work will continue this week on several heavily traveled city streets, officials said.

Franklin County Highway Engineer David Palmer said crews finished all milling work and are into the paving portion of the project, which is being completed through the Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program (ATRIP).

“So far we’ve finished all the paving on Duncan Creek Road from Harrison Avenue to the city limits,” he said. “All we have left there is the shoulder work and the permanent striping.

“This should be the case for the west end of Lawrence Street as well by the end of the day Tuesday. We should have that portion from Alabama 24 West to Dillard Hollow Road paved and all we’ll lack is the shoulder work and permanent striping.”

Palmer said the portion of Lawrence Street from Dillard Hollow Road through town to U.S. 43 would be put on hold while crews use the remainder of the week to finish the paving on either end of Jackson Avenue from Cotaco Street to U.S. 43 and from Tuscaloosa Street to U.S. 43.

“We needed to go ahead and get Jackson done because that milling work will start to break down if we wait too long,” he said Tuesday. “We have some leveling work we’ll have to do on Jackson on Wednesday and then we’ll move on to the main line paving.”

Palmer said there would be some traffic delays, but traffic wouldn’t have to be completely rerouted while the work is taking place.

“Motorists can still drive down Jackson while this work is going on, but they will need to plan for some delays,” he said. “We’ll just have one lane open so they may have to sit for a little while to wait on the pilot car to lead them down the one lane.”

Palmer said he expected the paving to be completed on Jackson by Friday.

“If there’s anything left after Friday, it will just be minimal ,and we’ll be able to finish it up Monday morning if necessary,” he said.

On Monday crews will go back to Lawrence Street and finish the paving back out to U.S. 43.

Russellville Mayor David Grissom said the roadwork has been inconvenient since it’s taking place on heavily used city streets, but it would be worth it in the end.

“I appreciate our residents being patient,” he said. “I’m sure just about everyone has had to drive on the roads that are under construction, and I know it isn’t pleasant to drive on these milled streets, but they are all going to be so much better than they were once they are completed.

“The portion of Duncan Creek Road they’ve finished with and the recent work they completed on Waterloo all looks great and drives a lot easier than it did.”

Palmer said he estimated it would be another 3-4 weeks before they were 100 percent done with all the ATRIP pro-jects.

“We are going to make sure we are completely done with all of our ATRIP projects before we move on to anything else,” he said. “We have a few non-ATRIP projects on tap that are close to some of these existing projects, but we won’t be starting on those until we are finished with ATRIP. Once we’re done, we will start on the non-ATRIP projects and see how much we can get done as long as the weather holds out.”

The one exception, he said, would be the industrial access project on Lawrence Street East from U.S. 43 to Alabama 24 East, which passes in front of the International Hearth Products (IHP) facility.

“This is a completely separate project that is being funded through an industrial access grant,” Palmer said. “Midsouth Paving will be the ones completing this project while Rogers Group finishes up the ATRIP project.”

He said the industrial access paving should start next week.