Critical funding shortages weaken Iowa road system
Every year, more Iowa roads and bridges fall into disrepair due to shortfalls in funding infrastructure improvements, an Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) official said last week at the Iowa Farm Bureau annual meeting in Des Moines.
"The system is aging. Our needs are going up, but we have less ability to address those needs," said Stuart Anderson, Iowa DOT planning, programming and modal division director.
About one-third of the money used for road construction in Iowa comes from the state fuel tax, which has not increased for the last 25 years. And, as drivers travel fewer miles and use more fuel efficient vehicles, fuel tax collections dwindle.
Meanwhile, construction costs continue to creep higher each year, meaning the DOT can cover fewer miles for each dollar collected. From 2003 to 2008, the DOT saw 65 percent increase in construction costs due to increasing petroleum costs and high worldwide demand for concrete and steel.
"In 2014, we had 31 percent less buying power than we had in 1997 while needs on the system are now much greater," Anderson said.
As a result, the state faces an annual deficit of about $215 million each year in critical road funding needs, he said. That means more bridges will be closed or weight-restricted, deterioration of even some high-level roads, increased transportation costs for businesses and possible economic losses, he said.
"It’s becoming a hindrance to our growth," he said.
Closing bridges, roads
The infrastructure challenges are having a clear economic impact on farmers who are forced to travel greater distances to their fields or markets due to increasingly common weight restrictions and bridge closures, he said.
One survey ranked Iowa’s bridges as the second worst in the nation. More than one-half of the 4,000 bridges on county road systems have some type of weight restrictions, and 300 have been closed over the past few years, Anderson said.
Additionally, some counties are letting paved roads go back to gravel, and gravel roads back to dirt.
And, with commercial traffic on Interstate 80 predicted to increase significantly in the next 25 years, the state of Iowa will be required to spend more money on maintaining and improving that stretch of road between its borders.
The bottom line, Anderson said, is additional funding will be needed for road maintenance and improvements. The only question is where it will come from — most likely through either increased fuel taxes or property taxes.
The state’s long-time guiding principle has been that road use funds should come primarily from user fees, such as the fuel tax and registration fees, and that improvements should be made on as a pay-as-you-go system rather than incurring debt, Anderson said.
However, recent efforts to raise the fuel tax have faltered in the state legislature. As a result, more counties have turned to bonding to pay for road improvements due to shortfalls in state funding. Already, about one-third of counties have used the bonding approach to pay for roads, said Tim Johnson, Iowa Farm Bureau senior research and policy analyst.
"The current trend is certainly a concern for property taxpayers," he said. "It’s not a question of if taxes are going to be raised for infrastructure; it’s how that money is going to be raised. The infrastructure needs to be there, and it will be paid for somehow."
Some groups are floating a new approach this year that would reduce the current gasoline tax by 5 cents per gallon, but add a 5 percent sales tax to the wholesale price of fuel, Anderson reported.
The formula would bring in an estimated additional $230 million annually for road funding and would provide some protection against inflation by increasing as the price of fuel rises, he explained. The average cost to consumers would be an additional $60 to $80 per vehicle, depending on the number of miles driven, Anderson said.
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