Yes, Delaware’s roads and bridges are in abysmal shape. It goes without saying how important our state’s infrastructure is to residents, business owners, tourists and anyone else who would travel to the First State.
So Gov. Markell is right when he says that as a state, “We just have to make more investments in our roads and bridges.” He just forgot to mention that by raiding the woefully underfunded Transportation Trust Fund to balance his budget, he’s also part of the problem.
Let me explain.
Last week, Democrats in the House (without support from a single Republican) passed a bill to increase DMV fees to fund road improvements. The 14 driver-related fees, which include everything from document fees on car purchases to late renewal fees for driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations, would generate $24 million annually for transportation projects across the state.
That $24 million is important, because it would help close a $780 million, six-year deficit in our capital transportation program. According to the News Journal, unfunded projects include safety improvements on U.S. 40 and widening of Del. 1 to relieve congestion from Tybouts Corner to Del. 273. Then there are state’s pothole-infested roads and its 123 obsolete bridges, not to mention the 48 deficient bridges drivers ride across every day.
And the all-important Wilmington viaduct, which carries I-95 through Wilmington, needs $34 million worth of work, less we want another I-495 incident on our hands.
So investing in this infrastructure is critical. Consider the upgrades made to the Del. 1 and I-95 interchange. Without those flyover bridges improving traffic patterns, you could say goodbye to all the new growth in and around the Christiana Mall, which created jobs and generates essential tax revenue for the state.
I would go even further than House Bill 40. For starters, it’s past time Delaware raised its gas tax. Gas prices are currently about $1 less than last year – increasing the gas tax by 10-cents would raise an additional $50 million in revenue. Considering there hasn’t been a gas tax increase in 20 years and would only cost the average driver $60 bucks annually, why couldn’t Markell sell this proposal last year?
Maybe the problem is the messenger. As my cartoon illustrates, Markell isn’t exactly the ideal spokesman for promoting an increase in transportation spending. Last year, Markell took $40 million that would have gone towards road and bridge work and used it to plug holes in his budget. He’s proposing the same thing for this year, which doesn’t seem to jive with his rhetoric.
On top of that, state funding for these dire infrastructure repairs has dropped over the last three years, to just $139 million in Markell’s budget for this year. That’s down from $155 million in 2015 and $196.7 million in 2014. A total drop of $57.7 million in just two years. I hate to echo Charlie Copeland on anything, but he’s right when he says, “Either transportation infrastructure is or it is not important.”
So in my mind, Markell and Democrats need to find the grit to do what’s necessary to fund our deteriorating infrastructure. Raising DMV fees is a nice start, but increasing the gas tax is a must.
How about increasing the tax on wholesale fuel deliveries? Or reversing the tax cut he gave to Delaware’s wealthiest citizens back in 2013, when the top marginal tax rate was allowed to roll back to 6.6 percent, down from 6.95 percent?
Every dollar invested in capital transportation projects returns $5 dollars to the state’s economy. So you can lambaste it as a tax and spend plan all you want, but I prefer a more conservative slogan – you have to spend money to make money. We just may need a better spokesperson.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. Follow Rob on Twitter @RobTornoe