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Iowa's roads need $200 million shot in the arm, officials say

Friday, March 30, 2007

Transportation officials say the cost of Iowa's public road system has skyrocketed and they need at least $200 million more a year to keep up.

Generating that $200 million could mean increasing fuel tax or registration fees, upping the cost of licenses or charging tolls on certain bridges or portions of roads.

The problem, according to Plymouth County Engineer Tom Rohe, is that prices for construction materials like asphalt, concrete, steel and copper have shot through the roof.

"All the expenses for what we do jumped dramatically in the last two or three years," he said.

In 2005, resurfacing roads in the county cost about $100,000 a mile, Rohe said. Two years later, that cost has jumped to $160,000 a mile or higher.

Their income, however, has seen little change.

"Road Use Tax has been just flat for the last four years," he said.

Road Use Tax, he said, provides two-thirds of the income for the county road department, and property taxes make up the remaining third.

Pumping the added $200 million annually into Iowa's roads would mean adding about $660,000 in revenue for Plymouth County road improvements.

The same disparity between cost and income is pounding the departments that cover the rest of the nearly 114,000 miles of public highways, streets and roads across Iowa.

In the 12 months leading up to May 2006, the price of asphalt jumped 48 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Diesel fuel shot up 40 percent after already going up about 40 percent the year before, about 35 percent more than the rate of inflation each year.

"The problem is we're running out of money. By 2015 we will have no more funds for new roads," said Iowa Senator Tom Reilly, chairman of the transportation committee. "But what is of more concern to us is there is a lot of economic development going on right now, and that will put pressure on existing roadways."

According to an Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) report, $200 million a year is the "minimum amount of new funding needed to meet the most critical needs to sustain and enhance Iowa's economy."

On Tuesday, the Plymouth County supervisors signed their names to a resolution supporting state legislation that would put an additional $200 million to Iowa's road use tax fund.

The proposal comes from a program dubbed "TIME-21" -- Transportation Investment Moves the Economy in the 21st Century. The premise of TIME-21 is that Iowa's roads are essential in keeping the state viable in terms of economic growth and strength. The IDOT recommended creating a TIME-21 fund and the legislature mandated a TIME-21 report.

In the TIME-21 report, the IDOT suggested several options to raise the $200 million:

*Increase the fuel tax, which has not increased since 1989. Each additional penny per gallon would bring in about $22 million a year.

*Add a sales tax on fuel. A one-percent sales tax on fuel would bring in about $43 million a year, looking at prices from the end of 2006.

*Increase pickup truck registration to make it equal with cars, using a weight-value system. This could bring in $56.6 million a year.

*Increase vehicle registration fees -- a $50 minimum fee for cars and $35 minimum for trucks would bring in $19 million annually

*Increase use tax on motor vehicles to six percent, a one percent jump. This would generate about $40 million a year.

*Either double the driver's license fee (bringing in $12 million a year) or make a $3 license fee a statewide institution (bringing in $1.5 million annually).

*Assess a severance fee on ethanol exported from Iowa. If 65 percent of Iowa-produced ethanol -- 1.5 billion gallons in 2006 -- is exported a one-cent-per-gallon tax would bring in $9.75 yearly.

*Create a per-mile tax on vehicle travel in the state. In 2005, vehicles put in 31.6 billion miles in Iowa, which with a penny-per-mile tax would bring in $316 million a year.

*Tax residents in certain areas of Iowa for road improvements.

*Issue bonds for road projects.

*Privatize portions of Iowa's roads.

*Charge tolls on portions of roads or bridges.

*Make developers pay for infrastructure needs created by their development.

Senator Reilly said he traveled across Iowa to discuss transportation issues including TIME-21 and said people thought it would be best to combine several of the options.

"At the end of the meetings, most people attending said not to just focus on one area, but look at spreading it around," he said.

Many people at the meetings were county engineers or city road officials, Reilly said, but he thought the idea would resonate with average citizens as well.

"There's still concern about driving on good roads, not having crumbling infrastructure," he said. "The problem is, it's got to be paid for."

TIME-21 isn't part of any specific legislation at this point, Reilly said, but it has been the matter of much discussion in the statehouse.

Senator Dave Mulder said the response TIME-21 is getting is favorable.

"Generally I'm hearing nothing but approval, and that's where I'm looking at heading as well," he said.

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