Column: More state money needed for roads

The Tribune

Infrastructure is vital to the economic future of Indiana, and a key element is Indiana’s streets, roads and highways.

But ironically, because Hoosiers are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles, they are buying less fuel. That means lower fuel-tax income for the state and communities. As a result, there is less money to make needed repairs and improvements.

Roads across Jackson County are deteriorating. The repairs made often are less than engineers think appropriate for long-term purposes because governments lack the funds needed to choose the best — and more expensive — option the first time.

Jackson County and local cities have lost a total of nearly $1 million in fuel tax revenue during the past five years, and fuel tax revenues for nearly all counties have fallen to about what they were in 1999, according to Stephanie Yager, executive director of the Indiana Association of County Commissioners.

The association is asking the state to come up with a plan to address the lack of funding, including possibly letting counties keep more of the fuel tax money.

In Johnson County, county council member Ron West wants to see a 2- to 5-cent county gas tax created that would give local highway and street departments more revenue. He also views the tax as more fair to drivers than the county’s current wheel tax, which charges everyone the same amount when they register their vehicles.

So far, Jackson County has resisted the temptation to adopt a wheel tax, although its adoption has been recommended by some former council members in an effort to generate more money for road and bridge repairs.

The state would have to approve West’s idea, and he told our sister paper, the Daily Journal in Franklin, that he has been talking to lawmakers who represent portions of Johnson County. Jackson County officials should watch to see what happens.

Drivers currently pay the 18-cents-per-gallon fuel tax every time they fill up in Indiana. The tax is separate from the 7 percent sales tax drivers also pay on gasoline. The fuel tax is part of what pays for counties’ and cities’ highway and street budgets and also helps fund the Indiana State Police and Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

Raising any taxes right now would be politically unpopular, if not downright impossible. Both major-party candidates for governor talk about cutting taxes, so finding more money for road repairs will be a challenge.

There is an alternative, though. Funding for the state agencies, state police and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles could be shifted to the state’s general fund, which draws most of its income from state income and sales taxes. Doing this would open a portion of the fuel tax, which could be split between state and local governments.

Providing more funding for road construction is vital, especially in the light of the end of the money from Gov. Mitch Daniels’ Major Moves initiative.

Without continued investment in Hoosier roads and bridges, Indiana risks sacrificing its economic future. Given the state’s position in the center of the Midwest and as a hub for several interstate highways, this would be a travesty.

We urge the next governor and legislature to look seriously at the future of funding for road construction. Because of property-tax caps and declining fuel-tax income, local communities are strapped to maintain roads and bridges.

Such a move would place funding for the state agencies in a more appropriate segment of the state budget and most importantly help counties, cities and towns better maintain an essential part of Indiana infrastructure.

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