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From Utah to Florida, States Boost Spending on New Roads

By Joseph De Avila 

The highways in Kansas appeared smooth, but below the surface the core was crumbling.

After years of taking money away from transportation needs to dig the state out of budget holes, Kansas plans to spend $435 million on long-delayed highway expansion and modernization projects over the next two years, said Julie Lorenz, secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation.

"Our highway system has been in a state of deterioration," Ms. Lorenz said. "There is pent-up demand for transportation."

Buoyed by a recovering economy and increases in their revenue, states from Utah to Florida are pumping more money into transportation projects to speed up traffic-clogged highways and modernize aging infrastructure. The 50 states collectively spent $113.2 billion on transportation in fiscal year 2019, a 9% jump from the previous year, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. It was the biggest jump since 2015, and transportation industry trackers said they expect spending boosts to continue in 2020.

State transportation departments and local governments are projected to spend $77.5 billion on highway and street construction investments alone in 2020, a 6% increase over 2019, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

States collectively face a backlog of $873 billion worth of repairs for infrastructure projects such as roads and highways, according to the Volcker Alliance, a nonpartisan nonprofit that studies government. As tax collections have bounced back from the recession, states have begun to chip away at those projects, said Brian Sigritz, director of state fiscal studies at NASBO.

"States also recognize how transportation impacts other areas, things like economic development, potentially job growth," Mr. Sigritz said.

States and local governments are now paying larger portions for public infrastructure, about 80% of all projects, as federal investment has decreased over the years, according to the Volcker Alliance. The federal government spent $46.3 billion on transportation in fiscal year 2019, a 7% increase, following two years of declines, according to NASBO.

Fast-growing Utah nearly doubled transportation spending to $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2019, NASBO said, making it one of the 15 states that boosted spending by 10% or more last year.

Carlos Braceras, executive director of Utah's Department of Transportation, said residents expect the state to continue funneling money into transportation as the state's population of 3.2 million is projected to double over the next four decades.

"We are becoming more crowded," he said. "There is an angst about maintaining that quality of life."

In addition to 15 large ongoing highway projects, the transportation department is leading work on a plan to improve the public-transit system, including expanding commuter-rail service and express bus service, Mr. Braceras said.

Florida shelved many infrastructure projects following the 2007 recession, said Kevin Thibault, secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation.

The state will spend $10 billion on transportation in the current fiscal year to keep pace with its now-thriving tourism industry, and a steady stream of new residents, Mr. Thibault said.

The current spending plan includes $6.5 billion for new highway construction and to beef up capacity, including nearly 100 new lane miles.

In Kansas, the state's highway woes stem from lawmakers taking $2 billion allocated for the transportation department since 2011 to help fill budget holes in the general fund.

Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat inaugurated in 2019, wants to taper off using the transportation funds to fill budget deficits by 2023, which will allow the department to resume issuing bonds for projects by 2022, Ms. Lorenz said. The state is also lining up about $1 billion worth of infrastructure investments to put into the pipeline for work in the near future, she said.

Write to Joseph De Avila at joseph.deavila@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 11, 2020 09:44 ET (14:44 GMT)

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