DelDOT: Road repairs covered by new funding

DelDOT Secretary Jennifer Cohan leads a media roundtable discussion Thursday inside the Dover headquarters Thursday. (Delaware State News photo by Dave Chambers)

Delaware Department of Transportation Secretary Jennifer Cohan leads a media roundtable discussion Thursday inside the Dover headquarters Thursday. (Delaware State News photo by Dave Chambers)

DOVER — For now, the Department of Transportation is in a much better position than it was just a week and a half ago.

A bill passed at the 11th hour on the General Assembly’s last day will generate nearly $24 million in new revenue, while borrowing, shifting of some operating costs and increasing oversized permit fees are expected to bring in another $31 million annually.

All that means DelDOT has an extra $55 million per year, helping to reduce the large budget gap the agency was facing.

Before the new revenue was approved, DelDOT risked watching $780 million in projects over its six-year plan go unfunded, said Secretary Jennifer Cohan.

In a briefing for reporters Thursday, DelDOT officials outlined the agency’s budget situation and priorities. With a trust fund in excess of $850 million, the department is one of Delaware’s largest, and perhaps its most complex, cabinet-level body.

State-of-good-repair will be covered, with much of the additional money going to paving roads. In addition, most of the 98 items listed on DelDOT’s construction schedule for the next five years likely will receive new funding for at least one more phase.

Depending on the project’s readiness, a planned construction project could be earmarked funding for planning, right-of-way acquisition or construction.

Much of the new revenue comes from House Bill 140, which increases 14 Division of Motor Vehicles fees. Delaware motorists will pay more when they buy a car, renew a license or receive a duplicate document, while in return, the state will be able to expand its focus and complete more projects — vital for safety, officials claim.

The changes will take effect Oct. 1.

Not included in the bill because the department does not need legislative authority are planned increases for oversize permits, which have remained static for more than 30 years.

An oversize permit will go from $10 to $30, while a superload permit will increase from $30 to $60 and an over-the-legal-weight fee will change from $5 for every 8,000 pounds to $10 per the rate.

DelDOT’s finances are stronger than in the past, officials insist. Under former department Secretary Shailen Bhatt, who held the office from 2011 to this past January, the agency was able to cut its debt from more than $1.2 billion in 2011 to just under $800 million this year.

Unlike all other state agencies, DelDOT also has reduced its operating expenses, Secretary Jennifer Cohan said.

Going forward, DelDOT officials are excited about a bill they believe will save the department a great deal of time.

“Design-build allows us to enter into a contract with one entity who will design and build a project, as opposed to what we typically do, which is design a project and then we put it out for advertisement, take bids and then enter into a separate contract with a builder,” said Rob McCleary, DelDOT’s chief engineer.

The proposal is awaiting the governor’s signature.

This fiscal year sees the first of what many lawmakers and officials hope will be a multi-step process of moving DelDOT’s operating costs out of the Transportation Trust Fund and back into the General Fund.

For more than 20 years, the trust fund has been used in part to cover the agency’s personnel and other non-construction-related costs, in addition to its original purpose of paying for infrastructure.

Republican legislators have led a recent push to free up space in the trust fund, and while doing so would place a greater burden on the General Fund it would allow for more construction.

In the final budget process at the end of the 2015 legislative session $5 million out of nearly $232 million in operating expenses was shifted to the General Fund.

“There will be no more quasi-raiding of the Transportation Trust Fund,” Ms. Cohan said.

She is in support of continuing to move the agency’s costs, but any such plans are contingent on how the larger General Fund is doing.

Department projections have the price of gasoline rising but revenue from the state’s 23 cents-per-gallon gas tax remaining largely unchanged, as cars become more efficient.

“Good news for vehicle owners, really bad news for the TTF,” Ms. Cohan said to laughter from others in the conference room.

Approximately $117 million was collected from the tax in fiscal year 2014.

Ms. Cohan said she is not planning to push for a gasoline tax increase, something lawmakers discussed behind closed doors this year before rejecting it — although she believes it would have been adopted had the session lasted longer.

“I think we’re content with what we have at the moment,” she said. “It does not solve our long-term issues, but I think we’re probably going to spend the next year working on spending these dollars and doing it appropriately.

“But I don’t have a crystal ball. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen in January.”

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