In his State of the State address last week, Gov. Jack Markell proposed to members of the General Assembly that the state invest $1.1 billion in transportation infrastructure over the next five years. This represents a $500 million increase in the Delaware Department of Transportation's current five-year plan.
On Wednesday, the governor met with DelDOT officials, legislators and members of the media to discuss his plan for funding this increase.
Markell is proposing a 10-cent increase to the state gas tax that he says would generate $50 million per year for the state's Transportation Trust Fund. He is proposing that DelDOT borrow additional funds to make up the rest.
A 10-cent increase to the gas tax would cost Delaware motorists approximately $57 per year or $4.78 per month, according to Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt.
"We understand that $4.78 a month is real money to people," Bhatt said. "It's also real money that's needed for infrastructure investments."
The gas tax is currently set at 23 cents per gallon for gasoline and 22 cents per gallon for special fuels, such as diesel, according to Gov. Markell's office.
Some state legislators expressed concern in increasing costs at the pump. Rep. Trey Paradee (D-Dover) said he worries about the impact it could have on the state's working residents.
"My concern is that the gas tax would affect working people more than some others, those people that have to drive back and forth to work or are taking their kids to school," Paradee said. "It's going to impact them pretty hard."
Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson (R-Milford) said he felt a 10-cent increase was too steep.
"People are being hit with higher taxes left and right throughout the state," Simpson said. "I think now is just the wrong time, without knowing all of the details, to be passing such a hefty increase."
The funds raised by the increase would be used to support improvements to Delaware's roads, bridges and other transportation elements.
The borrowed funds would be used to fund projects that would address public safety, congestion and maintenance, which have been identified but have been delayed. These projects have been identified through sources such as the Delaware Department of Transportation's Capital Transportation Plan and DelDOT's paving program, Bhatt said.
Despite the fact that the plan calls for DelDOT to borrow $50 million a year, the plan would help DelDOT pay down its debt, Markell claimed. The transportation department spends roughly 24 percent of its revenues on paying off its debt. Under the proposed plan, that percentage would be reduced to 22 percent in Fiscal Year 2015.
The decision to address transportation funding was driven by recommendations made by the Transportation Trust Fund Task Force in a 2011 report that stated the Transportation Trust Fund had been receiving insufficient funding over a significant period, Markell said.
Page 2 of 2 - "These challenges have caused the postponement or delay of more than 55 road projects in the current fiscal year," he said. "The bottom line is that the Transportation Trust Fund lacks a reliable revenue source."
Markell stated that he wanted bi-partisan support in the proposed plan and that infrastructure is not a partisan issue. Some legislators, such as Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle (R-Sharpley), don't feel that the governor has worked hard enough to appease both parties.
"The governor says he wants this to be bi-partisan, but we have not had any discussions with anybody," Lavelle said. "We need more details. We don't know how it's going to be paid back. But it's hard to contemplate a gas tax increase without some reforms to the Transportation Trust Fund to ensure its integrity."
If the proposed increase in revenue is not implemented, more projects would have to be delayed, Bhatt said. The Capital Transportation Program for Fiscal Year 2015, which outlines projects that are slated to be constructed, designed or require right away acquisition, would be funded with $128 million.
Markell said that the proposed boost in funding would help improve public safety by ensuring that projects are completed to maintain a safe transportation network, and the work done to complete those projects will create construction jobs and help to attract businesses to Delaware.
Markell said he plans to begin conversations with legislators about the proposal and will push for the General Assembly to adopt the plan this year.
"As with everything else we will have to get the necessary votes from [members of the General Assembly]," he said. "The way our system works is that the will of the people is reflected by the members of the General Assembly, so we're going to spend a lot of time talking with them."