One of the few exceptions to the hard times is the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. Following a long stretch in which state investment in roads and bridges remained virtually flat, the Legislature in 2005 created the ROADS (Rebuilding Oklahoma Access and Driver Safety) fund. Revenues for this fund come directly from personal income tax collections, bypassing the legislative appropriations process.
Beginning with $15 million in Fiscal Year 2006, this year the ROADS fund will receive $292 million. It will continue to grow until it reaches $575 million in FY 2018.
In addition to the ROADS fund, roads and bridges have received various other funding increases since 2005. When all revenue sources are combined, state transportation funding has more than tripled.
Spending more on roads and bridges has yielded clear improvements to the state’s infrastructure. Oklahoma has long ranked at or near the bottom among states for the condition of our bridges. With new dollars, the Department of Transportation has reduced the number of structurally deficient highway bridges from 1,168 in 2004 to 706 in 2011 and is now on track to repair all deficient state bridges by 2019. ODOT also reports that we are now investing $65 million annually in surface rehabilitation, and the state has rehabilitated over 239 miles of interstate pavement since 2003.
However, the dollars going directly to ODOT are dollars lost from the general revenue fund and the 1017 fund to support education, public safety, human services and other core government functions. For example, since 2005, state funding for transportation has increased threefold, while support for public education has increased only 13 percent. This year, while transportation enjoyed an $80 million increase, common education received no additional state dollars.
The Oklahoman recently pointed out that new funding for transportation was long overdue. The agency received the same amount every year for many years without adjustments for inflation. The same, however, can be said for gas taxes, which have not been adjusted for inflation in 24 years. Now we’ve increased spending without raising taxes to pay for it, which means less money for other components of the budget.
Without any further legislative changes, state transportation funding will continue to grow, reaching upwards of $925 million by FY 2018. At the very least, we need an honest discussion of our priorities. Should transportation maintain its place at the head of the queue for additional state revenues regardless of the needs of other core services? Should we ask drivers to cover more of their fair share of the cost through a modernized gas tax?
Whatever we decide, Oklahomans and lawmakers need to understand the trade-offs.
Blatt is director of Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa-based think-tank.
Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.