Declining highway funds prevent road upgrades in Arizona

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By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

PHOENIX (AP) -- Federal spending on roads and highways has dipped in Arizona, meaning congested freeways and bottlenecked interchanges in metro Phoenix aren't likely to be upgraded any time soon.

Revenue to Arizona from the Federal Highway Trust Fund declined 3 percent during the five-year period ending in 2013, the latest year for which federal numbers were available. Per capita highway funding for Arizona dropped by 8 percent in that time, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

The reductions translate to millions of dollars.

"If you lose that kind of money, you just can't make it up," Maricopa Association of Governments Director Eric Anderson said.

The association, which oversees transportation planning for metropolitan Phoenix and areas of Pinal County, has had to defer more than a dozen projects. They range from adding lanes to major interstates to building a new freeway to relieve congestion on Interstate 10, the major east-west corridor for the region.

Compounding the problem, Arizona taxes on fuel and vehicle licenses and other fees haven't generated the necessary revenue to keep up with maintenance needs of the state's road system, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation. "It's really a trend we've seen over the last few years but not something we're surprised with," ADOT spokeswoman Laura Douglas said.

It's also been difficult to stretch transportation dollars outside of metropolitan areas, where there aren't as many alternative sources of funding, she said. The department has shifted to focus on maintenance over expansion.

"We really saw that shift to a preservation-based system, which means to really ensure we are protecting the infrastructure we have in place," Douglas said.

The lagging federal funds over the last few years have led to "either lower than expected or, in some cases, absolute declines in revenue," Anderson said. "Congress needs to either increase revenue in the Federal Highway Trust Fund or find some other ways to fund transportation in this country."

Previous local solutions haven't fixed the funding problem either, Anderson said. Revenue from a Maricopa County voter-approved 0.5 percent sales tax for transportation needs has fallen short of expectations by about $1.2 billion, and the gap is growing, he said.

Transportation planners are considering other ways to help commuters while dream highway projects get put on the backburner. Anderson said officials continue to look at technology in traffic systems to help smooth out traffic flows.

"Even if we had more money, it's always more prudent to think how can we get more of out of what we have versus building new stuff," Anderson said.

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