States see potential federal windfall, go slow on road taxes

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The Deception Pass Bridge, nearly 1,000-feet long and about 180-feet above the waters below, is covered in scaffolding as work to replace corroded steel and paint the structure continues Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Deception Pass, Wash. Raising state taxes to improve roads and bridges is one of the few things many Republican and Democratic lawmakers have agreed on in recent years. Those efforts have slowed to a crawl this year, even as lawmakers acknowledge a widening gap between needed work and the money to pay for it. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Raising state taxes to improve roads and bridges is one of the few things many Republican and Democratic lawmakers have agreed on in recent years.

Those efforts have slowed this year, even as lawmakers acknowledge a widening gap between needed work and the money to pay for it. One reason: the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Some states are “waiting to see what direction the federal government is going to be taking,” said Carolyn Kramer, an advocacy director with the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

State lawmakers across the country have proposed fewer than 170 transportation funding bills this year — barely half the amount proposed during the last post-election year of 2019, according to the association. So far, not a single transportation tax increase has passed, though several are pending.

Kramer said states are still assessing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their economies, but also are watching for a potential gusher of federal money. Numerous avenues exist for new federal road funding:

— President Joe Biden signed a coronavirus relief package that includes $350 billion for state and local governments. Some states such as Indiana and Maryland already are planning to spend part of that on transportation projects; others are awaiting federal guidance on using the money.

— Biden also has proposed at least $135 billion for roads and bridges as part of a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan. Senate Republicans have countered with an infrastructure proposal that would dedicate $299 billion to roads and bridges.

— Congress is working on a long-term renewal of the nation's main highway program that could direct billions more annually to states.