FL: Broward County Highway, Transit Projects at Risk if Federal Money Runs Out

July 20--Fort Lauderdale's Wave streetcar, express toll lane projects on Interstate 75 and new sidewalks are at risk as federal tax money that helps pay for transportation projects is in danger of running out.

Congress is moving swiftly to shore up a budget shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund before an August deadline. The House on Tuesday passed a measure for a short-term fix of $10.5 billion that would pay for transportation projects until May 2015. The Senate is looking at passing a similar measure before lawmakers' August break.

But if an agreement isn't reached soon, a number of big and small projects could be delayed or possibly stopped altogether.

In Broward County, some $1.5 billion in transportation projects hang in the balance, said Greg Stuart, executive director of the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization.

"It would be a major hit," he said. "Anything with federal money -- and it's a lot of things -- all of those projects would have to be slowed down."

An extended delay in federal funds could negatively impact the Wave electric streetcar that is expected to start running in 2016.

The Broward MPO has about $100 million in sidewalks projects planned as part of its Complete Streets effort. And express lanes underway on Interstate 75, a $700 million project being constructed in phases, could by stymied by congressional inaction, Stuart said.

Local roads would not be impacted because cities and counties use property and gas taxes as well as impact fees to maintain roads and bridges and run buses.

Faced with the prospect of an insolvent highway trust fund, the Florida Department of Transportation has been setting aside extra cash so work can continue without federal money. But that will only last three to six months.

Beyond that, the state DOT would focus on safety and preserving the existing system. And then they would look at delaying some projects, said Barbara Kelleher, a FDOT spokeswoman.

But state officials don't think it will get that far.

"We, like others, believe the federal funding will come through," Kelleher wrote in an email.

Florida receives about $2 billion a year for highways and $340 million for transit from the federal government.

The highway trust fund is low on cash because it relies on the federal gas tax, which at 18.4 cents a gallon hasn't changed since 1993. At the same time, vehicles have become more fuel efficient, and people are driving less. As a result, not enough money is being collected to pay for all the nation's transportation needs.

In 2013, the Highway Trust Fund collected about $37 billion in gas-tax revenue and interest but paid out $50 billion.

That has many calling for a long-term fix to the trust fund, such as raising the gas tax, rather than the short-term funding approved by the House.

"They're kicking the can down the road," Stuart said. "There's going to have to be another fix."

astreeter@tribune.com, 561-243-6537 or Twitter @adstreeter

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