Friday, July 17, 2009

Trying to understand how highways are funded..(key word: trying)

Forenote: This post is an educational process for me as much as it is for the reader, and the only "fact" one can be certain of reading the following post is that the process is very convoluted and opportunities for corruption abound. I am not expert on state transportation funding, so it won't hurt my feelings if I get corrected, in fact it's probably for the best, so don't just feel free, but feel obligated to do so!

On my post regarding ODOT's formal request for rail funding, Steve and I began debating the merits of including rail in what ODOT does, and so on. I was about to respond to his last comment when I realized it should probably illicit its own post..trying to understand how the Turnpike Authority and ODOT function, how they get funding, what they use it for, and so on. His comment was as follows:
"Auto transit is a great topic, but that turnpike you refer to is under a turnpike authority ... not directly a government program if I understand it correctly - more like a non-profit?

And I've always thought roads and the military are the best things for government to be involved in. And as conservative as I am, I'll defend government/authorities and their relationship with roads in Oklahoma. We have lots of land that need roads, but generally a small population to pay for it. If we want to have people travel through our great state (which is smack dab in the middle of the country) then 44, 35, and 40 need to be well maintained. Remember when the bridge at Weber Falls was destroyed by a wayward river boat?! The quickness that was repaired goes to show how important it is to keep our roads in tip-top shape."
I agree with Steve that auto transit is a great topic, and it's definitely one that is a lot more complex than it should be. The general idea of how the system is supposed to work makes perfect sense, but becomes a tangled web of contradictions, corruption, and incompetency when we're talking about reality. The formula for transit funding that ODOT uses goes like this: Federal $ + ODOT $ = Total budget; ODOT $ = maintenance expenses, Federal $ = new road construction. First of all, I think this formula speaks volumes to the massive maintenance cost of roads, second of all, the "formula" hardly describes how roads actually get funded. Oftentimes ODOT doesn't even have enough money to cover the costs of maintenance, and we must wait until a federal appropriation in order for a road to be repaired, and sometimes a federal appropriation doesn't quite cover the expense of a new road, and the Stimulus Package just further complicates the picture with additional overlaps in responsibility. With as many overlaps in responsibility for transit funding as there are, the finger of blame can be pointed at pretty much everyone. The feds, the State Legislature, ODOT, the corrupt bidding process, metropolitan coalitions like ACOG and INCOG that get ODOT funding, and so on.

As for the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, far from being a non-profit was created in the 1950s, predating the Federal Highway System and even ODOT, which wasn't even created until 1976. OTA's sole purpose today is collecting tolls to supplement maintenance that we give the State Legislature tax dollars to do anyway. Their slogan on their website is, "PIKEPASS - Your life just got easier." But the irony is that if you're trying to understand why they exist, who funds them, and what they do.. then your life just got harder. OTA does not determine what projects need to be done, they are directed to act based on appropriations from the State Legislature that first go through ODOT. Studies are done by ODOT, whose responsibility it is to make sure projects are included in long-range transportation plans. The one and only way in which it is an independent arm of ODOT is that it's authorized to issue bonds to fund Turnpike projects, which aren't considered part of the State's debt. Tolls are collected to pay down on the bonds, which in 2005, tolls brought in $192 million. That year there was a $90 million debt payment, $60 million in operating expenses, and the remaining balance went to fund an $80 million Capital Plan. ODOT on the other hand has a $1.2 billion operating budget.

If you read OTA's website, they have an explanation of their funding that looks ridiculously incriminating of the powers that be in the State Capitol. ODOT gets around 5% of total appropriations, and according to the Federal Highway Administration, Oklahoma ranks 2nd in how much federal money we divert to non-transportation uses. In fact, we divert about one quarter of our total Motor Fuel Tax money that we receive from Washington to non-transportation uses. Supposedly, Kansas invests three times as much as Oklahoma does into transportation, making it a crying shame how transportation is funded in Oklahoma AND anyone whose driven all the way up to KC knows that their tolls are higher than ours.

There is no easy way to tell what "non-transportation" uses our Motor Fuel Tax money go towards. I'll keep digging and see what I can find.

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