As the new quadrennium crests in Alabama government, everybody looks toward a new beginning. There is a new fresh four years ahead for the newly-elected leaders. They are overwhelmingly Republican. The governor is Republican and all of the accompanying constitutional officeholders are members of the GOP. More importantly, the State Legislature--both the House and the Senate--are Republicans. In fact, over two-thirds of each chamber are Republican. It is a supermajority.
The cards are lining up for these leaders to leave a legacy. That legacy could and should be to rebuild Alabama’s roads and bridges. The optimum word is infrastructure. Folks know that it is time. Alabamians see the needs everyday as they drive to work. The staunchest and most conservative people I know throughout the state tell me, adamantly, that they are flat ready to pay more in gasoline tax to fix their roads.
The hue and cry arises from rural folks whose roads are impassable from large potholes. Birmingham’s roads are deplorable. Suburban commuters who have to travel Highway 280 in Jefferson and Shelby counties are exasperated. Indeed, commuters in the state from all of our largest metro areas are acutely aware of the horrendous log jams they experience every day.
The country folks have figured out that it would be cheaper to pay more for gasoline than it is to pay for having their frontends aligned and tires balanced every few weeks from hitting holes in their roads. A good many of the rural bridges in the state have been condemned and are hazardous for heavy trucks and school buses to travel.
The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) has an unprecedented number of unmet repairs and expansions. A spokesman for ALDOT says there are $10 billion of identified capacity projects and needs.
Some big-ticket items on the ALDOT list include a new Interstate 10 and bridge and Bayway widening project in Mobile and Baldwin Counties, the completion of the Birmingham northern beltline, the Montgomery Outer Loop, and additional lanes along the interstate in Huntsville.
Speaking of Huntsville, they are poised to be one of the fastest-growing areas of the entire nation over the next decade. It is imperative that their infrastructure needs are met to keep pace with their expansion. Toyota-Mazda is set to build their largest plant in the Huntsville-Madison metro area. They were assured that roads would be built to accommodate their location and expansion.
Alabama, like most states, relies on gasoline taxes to pay for their roads and bridges. It has been 26 years since our gas tax was raised. The last time that Alabama had an increase in our fuel tax was 1992. That state increase was just ahead of the last federal gas tax increase enacted by Congress.
President Donald Trump pledged while running and again after his election in 2016 to advance a massive infrastructure program, the largest in U.S. history. He signaled support for increasing the federal gasoline tax to pay for this American infrastructure initiative.
This rebuilding of America infrastructure is one of the bipartisan issues that both Democrats and Republicans are espousing.
It is a certainty that states will have to come up with matching dollars to get the federal money. Indeed, 28 states have raised or reformed their taxes since 2013 in anticipation of a federal tax increase which they will have to match.
This is the one issue in which both parties in Washington can come to an agreement. We in Alabama are not ahead of the curve, but we are poised to maybe come to grips with this issue.
A gasoline tax increase to fund infrastructure needs will be the paramount issue of 2019. My guess is that it will happen this year. Gov. Kay Ivey, shortly after taking office, said she “supported an increase in the state gasoline tax to fix state roadways.”
House Speaker Mac McCutchen, R-Huntsville, has trumpeted the need for a road program for years. Most of his Republican colleagues in the House ran for reelection without having to take a vow that they would not raise any new revenue or taxes.
The stars are aligned for Alabama to act. The time is now. The timing is good. We will probably never have the Chairman of the United States Senate Appropriations Committee as our senior senator ever again. Sen. Richard Shelby will make sure that we get our fair share of the federal money. However, we must have the basic revenue to draw down the federal funds.
See you next week.
(Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in more than 60 Alabama newspapers. Flowers served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.)