Legislators approve 'sweeping' revenue package

State legislators approved a sweeping revenue package with the 2008 fiscal year budget this weekend, raising $572 million over the next six years to help cover a $1.5 billion shortfall in the capital transportation program and, perhaps, saving some roadway projects that were left in jeopardy.

Abandoning an unpopular gas tax increase that officials estimated would have raised nearly $30 million, legislators used a myriad of transportation-related fee increases to raise $164 million in the next two years — still $70 million less than asked for by the governor in January.

Delaware Department of Transportation spokesman Darrel Cole said transportation officials have already begun to study the transportation plan to work within newly-established fiscal limitations. Cole said DelDOT hopes to retain all federal funding and plans to deliver the dozens of projects listed in that plan, although further delays are likely inevitable.

“In the 90-year history of the state transportation system, this is the most sweeping revenue enhancements that we’ve ever had,” Cole said this week, adding that logistics have yet to be worked out. “It was definitely needed.”

New revenue sources approved Saturday included a passenger vehicle registration fee increase from $20 to $40, a .5 percent documentation fee increase and a host of toll increases on I-95 and Route 1. Those increases will take effect on Oct. 1, with driver’s license, title and ID card fee increases beginning July 9.

Cole said the department will rework the plan and use loans, and will ask for additional revenue assistance to meet the additional roughly $1 billion needed to cover the still-sobering shortfall in the six-year capital transportation plan. Two independent reports issued two weeks ago called on state officials to approve revenue funding, threatening that Delaware roads would deteriorate and roadway congestion would continue to worse if planned projects were abandoned.

The 2008 fiscal year budget includes roughly $14 million in state and federal funds to buy land along Route 26 to clear space for the long-anticipated $55 million project to expand the east-west roadway from the Assawoman Canal Bridge to Clarksville.

Local residents have called on state officials in recent months, and in some cases for years, to make moves to relieve congestion on east-west roadways that have continually been identified as evacuation routes by DelDOT, such as Route 26. Projects to expand the notoriously-congested road have been studied since the mid-1970s, when a group of local property owners opposed a plan to build a four-lane highway there. The most recent plan calls for turn lanes and expanded shoulders and a road that will mirror Route 26 from the canal to Route 1.

Along with millions to replace the Indian River Inlet Bridge, the six-year plan also includes $4.3 million in state funds to expand Route 54 from Route 20 to the Keenwick communities in the next three years.

State Sen. George Bunting (D-20th) said Delaware’s coastal residents were some of the greatest benefactors of the 2008 budget. Besides the transportation funding, Bunting cited nearly $1.4 million in local library funding, $5 million for beach preservation and a $9 million authorization to continue work to enhance the Indian River Marina at the Delaware Seashore State Park.

“I think our district did extremely well,” Bunting said. “We have a lot of good things going on.”