Lewes resident urges legislators to keep DelDOT fees down

Transportation group: Cap borrowing, raise transit fare
September 17, 2013

A local advocacy group says state officials should do more to limit debt in Delaware Department of Transportation.

Lewes resident and former DelDOT Director of Highway Operations John Gilbert says increases in the gas tax and in public transit fare could create much-needed revenue for the department.

Delaware’s Transportation Trust Fund Task Force was created in July 2010, when the fiscal year 2011 Bond Bill was signed by the governor. The task force conducted a five-month review, and, in March 2011, issued a number of recommendations to close the gap between revenues and the cost of capital programs in the Delaware Transportation Trust Fund – the primary funding source for public transportation, and construction and maintenance of roads and bridges.

Task force recommendations included transferring DelDOT operating costs from the Transportation Trust Fund back to the general fund over a period of time; increasing tolls, gas taxes and Department of Motor Vehicle fees; and creating new revenue streams.

Gilbert said legislators failed to take action on any of the task force’s recommendations.  He formed the Transportation Strategy Group in late 2011, with former DelDOT officials

Ray Harbeson and Joe Wutka, to advocate for the task force.  The strategy group also issued its own recommendations to the state Joint Finance Committee and the Bond Bill Committee during public hearings in the last two years, including capping the amount of debt the fund can incur at 20 percent per year.

“We did talk to a couple legislators in the process, but there was really no formal response,” Gilbert said.

The Bond Bill, which was approved by the state legislature in June, gave $5.1 million from the general fund to the Transportation Trust Fund.  But Gilbert said the state should increase the gas tax or public transit fees to decrease the amount DelDOT needs to borrow; otherwise, he said, vital highway projects and public services will have to be cut.

Gilbert said DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt has controlled budget growth and reduced debt since the recommendations were issued.  “He’s got to have the General Assembly’s support,” Gilbert said.  “He cannot do it alone.”

Joint Finance Committee Chairwoman Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear/Newark, said

DelDOT’s budget for fiscal year 2014 decreased by 1.2 percent compared to fiscal year 2013. “This decrease is directly attributable to the Secretary’s recommendation and the General Assembly’s approval to hold the line on new borrowing to finance the transportation capital improvement program,” Smith said in an email.

Smith said Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council predicts debt service for the Transportation Trust Fund will decrease from 38 percent to 24.5 percent in fiscal year 2014, and the trust fund is not expected to acquire any new debt for at least six years.

Smith said Delaware Code already requires that the total debt service of the state and the Transportation Trust Fund cannot exceed 15 percent of the estimated general fund and trust fund revenue. “As a whole, the state is well below this cap and any consideration of capping TTF debt service payments should be discussed within the context of what is currently required by law,” she said.

Smith also said the fiscal year 2013 budget included a requirement for a review of paratransit services.  “This fall, the Joint Finance Committee intends to review the completed study and listen to Secretary Bhatt’s ideas for how to control cost yet continue to deliver an efficient service within the confines of federal and state statutes,” Smith said.