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|City and County Officials: Help Us Fix Our Roads|
|Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics|
|Written by Lynn Campbell|
|Friday, 27 January 2012 10:15|
City and county officials expressed frustration and a sense of helplessness January 24 over the lack of money to repair crumbling roads and bridges.
The local-government leaders argued strenuously at a Transportation Day 2012 event at the Wallace State Office Building that it’s time for the state to increase the gas tax to upgrade infrastructure. But Republican Governor Terry Branstad insisted the state must first show taxpayers it’s being efficient with money it already has.
Keokuk County Supervisor Mike Hadley said his county will have to close five bridges this year – including bridges that connect rural and agricultural areas to market towns – because they’re in such disrepair. He said rural America can’t grow if it doesn’t maintain its infrastructure.
“We can’t cut any more pencils and paper clips,” Hadley told the governor. “This has gone on too long. We have to act. Nobody wants to do this, but we have to ... . We can’t continue to just close down our infrastructure, because it never reopens.”
Don Hole, CEO of the Community Bankers of Iowa – which promotes independent banking and represents banks in more than 700 locations across the state – said Iowa small towns must maintain their roads, especially when they have only one road into town.
“We cannot let our rural, small towns die,” Hole said. “The worst thing we can do is not maintain access to them.”
Branstad said cost savings must come first. On Tuesday, he outlined $50 million in ways to reduce the cost of managing Iowa’s roadways. These include new policies to ensure projects come in ahead of schedule and under budget, and to increase signs and sponsorship at rest areas along Iowa’s Interstate highways.
But when pressed further, Branstad said he hasn’t closed the door on a gas-tax increase in future years, unlike former Democratic Governor Chet Culver.
“The last time this issue came up, the governor said he would veto it,” Branstad said. “I have not said that. I have instead said that I want to protect the interests of citizens and taxpayers. But I also recognize in the long term, user fees are the way we need to provide for our transportation system.”
Iowa’s tax is 21 cents a gallon for gasoline, and 19 cents for ethanol-blended fuel. The last gas-tax increase came in 1989.
Branstad, who served as governor from 1983 to 1999, said he was sharply criticized during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign for that gas-tax increase. “I took a heck of a lot of abuse for that,” Branstad said. “I understand what I’m doing.”
Hadley said he understands the need for cost savings. But he said he wants Branstad to understand what city and county leaders are saying about the need for action now on Iowa’s roads and bridges.
“We just can’t keep putting it off,” Hadley said. “It’s not that the roof is leaking. The roof is gone.”
The governor’s Transportation 2020 Citizen Advisory Commission, which was assigned to study this issue, in November identified a $1.6-billion annual shortfall for transportation-infrastructure needs. That included $215 million a year that’s considered “critical.” The panel recommended increasing Iowa’s gas tax as much as 10 cents a gallon.
Branstad raised his voice as one participant at the Transportation Day event accused him of cutting road funds. The governor insisted that he wasn’t. He said $128 million in road projects will get done earlier than expected this year because of federal-reimbursement funding that came in to fix Iowa’s roads after Missouri River flooding in western Iowa.
“You’ll probably yell at me, too,” joked Harlan City Manager and City Engineer Terry Cox, who pointed out that the governor’s commission recommended increasing Iowa’s gas tax starting in 2012, while the current plan calls for putting that off until 2013.
Cox said Branstad is trying to straddle the fence. He said he’s happy for the cost savings for the Department of Transportation, but he said that doesn’t help Iowa’s cities and counties with their road needs.
The crowd at the Transportation Day event applauded Iowa Senate Transportation Committee Chair Tom Rielly (D-Oskaloosa), who has co-sponsored a bill to increase the gas tax and predicted that will happen this year. “I really, truly think we’re going to get this thing done this year,” Rielly said.
Iowans for Tax Relief, a Muscatine-based not-for-profit that supports reduced state-government spending and lower taxes, is one of the lone voices so far opposing an increase in the gas tax.
Officials with the group did not speak at Tuesday’s Transportation Day event, but they have said people from border states who come to Iowa weekly to buy gas and groceries would rethink their trips and stay home if Iowa raises its gas tax.
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