Depleting federal highway fund could put Hawaii projects at risk

Anyone who drives knows that Hawaii’s roads and bridges are in bad shape. But could work to improve them be in jeopardy? The Federal Highway Trust Fund is going broke. That fund ensures that states and localities keep transportation projects going but if nothing is done to replenish it soon, state and local governments could be forced to hit the brakes.

All eyes are watching to see what federal officials will decide on Aug. 1. That is the deadline to determine not just how much but when the federal government will pay for its share of roadway and bridge projects across the country. Historically, the Highway Trust Fund has paid for the lion’s share of those projects but the fund is running out of money.

“Because in recent years, we’ve been seeing more money leave the trust fund, than entering the trust fund,” said Senator Will Espero, chairman of the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization (OMPO).

Each year the federal government receives $34 billion in gas tax money. But it pays out $50 billion for its share of the cost of projects across the country. That could force local and state governments to make drastic decisions.

“And it’s more likely we’ll see delays,” said Espero.

And while the H-1 rehab project will be wrapping up soon, the state will still want to do more improvements to the H-1 freeway system, including improvements to the Waimalu viaduct. It’s on the list of 10 other H-1 improvement projects the state will be soliciting for more federal funding.

While the state and local governments will pay all expenses for a project up-front, they will later turn to the federal government who will cut them a reimbursement check for 80 percent of the project’s cost. But with the fund in trouble, it may be a long time before anyone sees a reimbursement check in the mail. That may force local and state governments to bear more of the cost of projects with even a 50/50 split as an option.

“That’s an option,” said Brian Gibson, the Executive Director of OMPO. “If everything on the list is really important, maybe that’s something you want to do.”

One of the options to replenish the highway fund is to hike the federal gas tax which has not changed since 1993. Right now, that tax is 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline.

“I don’t drive that often – and the prices are already so high,” said Brian Roberts, a motorist. “So the difference between $4.50 and $4.70 doesn’t really make that much difference to me.”

‘I’m sure we have got to pay more tax,” said Cody Jarrett, another motorist. “That’s the price of paradise then we have to do it.”

The list of the proposed projects for the Fiscal Years 2015 to 2018 Transportation Improvement Program includes the Freeway Service Patrol and the Honolulu rail transit project. So far, there is no sign that Congress is moving to raise the federal gas tax, which is probably unlikely in an election year. The probable solution? What Congress has done many times in the past which is divert money from the General Fund, and place it in the Highway Trust Fund.

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