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Vehle talks roads, bridges with DC officials

WASHINGTON D.C. -- District 20 State Sen. Mike Vehle was among a group of eight state lawmakers from across the U.S. who were in Washington D.C. on Thursday to lobby for more federal investment in transportation.

Vehle, R-Mitchell, arrived in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, then met Thursday with members of Congress and White House officials to discuss the federal Highway Trust Fund, which could run out of money as soon as Aug. 1 without Congressional action. That would likely force the U.S. Department of Transportation to delay paying reimbursements from the fund to the states.

The Highway Trust Fund is funded by federal fuel taxes -- which haven't been increased since 1993 -- and accounts for about a third of state budgets for roads, bridges and mass-transit projects.

"It's running out and we need to get it fixed, and we need to get it fixed now," Vehle said in a telephone interview Friday with The Daily Republic.

Vehle is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and represents District 20, which includes Davison, Aurora and Jerauld counties.

If Congress fails to act, it wouldn't be the first time the Highway Trust Fund has faced a budget shortfall. Reimbursements to the states were delayed briefly in 2008 before Congress supplemented the fund.

Committees in the House and Senate each approved Thursday measures to replenish the Highway Trust Fund by transferring about $10.8 million to fund from sources unrelated to transportation.

"I don't think they would have gotten it through the committees if they didn't think they had a pretty good chance of getting it through the floors (of the House and Senate)," Vehle said.

The current law governing federal surface transportation spending, known as MAP-21, expires at the end of September. Vehle said he and the other state legislators urged the federal officials to put together a new, long-term bill to fund transportation projects across the country. Without a long-term plan, Vehle said it's difficult for states to plan far in advance for transportation projects.

"I'm hopeful, but I'm also realistic to know that Congress works under a crisis management mentality," he said. "So we've got to continually push for a long-term bill."

Vehle, who is part of a state legislative committee assigned this summer to look at road and bridge funding, said he doesn't think an increase in fuel taxes at either the state or federal level is possible in the short term.

"We all want good roads, but no one wants to pay for them," he said. "We need to do something in the meantime to be sure we can get over that hump."

The state's motor fuels tax was last raised in 1999. South Dakota's basic fuel tax is 22 cents a gallon for gasoline and diesel fuel. A 3 percent excise tax is imposed on vehicle sales.

Vehle said the trip was also an opportunity to learn, in a bipartisan setting, how other states have done to manage their transportation systems.

"That was very helpful to find out what worked and what didn't work," he said.