Sen. David Watters: Transportation funding, COVID-19 and economic recovery

For the Monitor
Published: 4/21/2020 4:13:09 PM

As chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, I know well that a 21st-century, multimodal transportation system is essential to economic growth. It will play an even more important role in economic recovery as New Hampshire emerges from the COVID-19 crisis.

With revenues rapidly declining from the tolls on the turnpike system – traffic was down 67% from a year ago on a recent Sunday – the loss of gas tax revenue as people stay at home and businesses close, and a decrease in car registration fees with few new cars purchased, the crisis extends not just to the Department of Transportation and its 10-year highway plan projects, but also to municipalities that receive 12% of those revenues for road projects.

There are actions the state can take, and actions the federal government must take so transportation can be a driver of economic recovery by putting people to work. It is also an opportunity to make the system far more resilient and energy efficient, with improved capacity for a new economy.

Damage is being done to workers and businesses that sustain transportation and the economy – truck drivers, car dealerships, repair shops and many others – so help for these people must be paramount in state use of CARES Act funding. The House Public Works Committee and the Senate Transportation Committee, in close partnership with NHDOT Commissioner Victoria Sheehan and her capable team, will have to craft a 10-year highway plan that sustains its goals, such as I-93 widening, the Little Bay Bridges, and other long-needed projects, red-listed bridges, paving and bus transit so people can get to work, among many other projects.

There must be a federal infusion of funds as well as changes in New Hampshire policy so the lost revenues to municipalities can be back-filled. State funding can also be allocated to less used municipal road projects.

Thanks to the work of New Hampshire’s federal delegation, the CARES Act’s provision of funding for New Hampshire’s airport provides a model for what must be done. New Hampshire’s Commissioner Sheehan is a strong advocate in Washington for federal funding, and I have communicated with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Rep. Chris Pappas about our state priorities.

Anticipating a 30-45% state transportation revenue loss, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) called for $49.95 billion to plug this loss. This will keep projects on track and prevent job losses at NHDOT, municipal public works departments and private contractors. Revenue loss threatens the state’s debt service, including the TIFIA loans and GARVEE bonds that are essential to the funding of New Hampshire projects.

The state also needs to provide a match to federal funds, so these backstop funds should be provided as 100% federal share. NHDOT must be able to support administration, operations and maintenance with this new federal funding.

Emergency funding is only part of the solution to ensure economic recovery. The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act expires in September. It is the vehicle for stable, long-term support for jobs and a for the transformation of the transportation system. AASHTO has requested a doubling of federal surface transportation funding. New Hampshire will particularly benefit from funding of new technologies, including the 5.9 GHz spectrum for safety monitoring, communications and the creation of “smart streets” for connected vehicles and autonomous vehicle operation.

Robust funding for electric vehicle charging must be included, as well as support for private bus companies, such as C&J transit, which did not receive transportation funding in the CARES Act. Another round of Community Multi-scale Air Quality funding will help New Hampshire improve traffic congestion and support public transportation and alternative travel, such as bicycles.

Offshore wind is of utmost importance to New Hampshire’s economic and energy future, but the industry cannot thrive here without upgrades to land and water transportation. The state has requested and the Army Corps of Engineers has approved the expansion of the turning basin in Portsmouth harbor.

This means tankers, freighters and specialized offshore-wind vessels can use the Port of Portsmouth. Congress must pass the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) now with sufficient funding to address the new projects and the backlog in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers port, waterway, flood protection and other water infrastructure. This will also ensure resilience for transportation systems along New Hampshire’s coast as sea levels rise.

Our jobs, businesses, trade and economic competitiveness depend on it.

Legislators stand ready to act quickly to mitigate potential damage to our transportation system and the jobs it supports, but we also will think strategically to design a road to a brighter, more prosperous future.

(Sen. David Watters of Dover serves as chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and the Capital Budget Committee and serves on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He is the deputy majority leader.)

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