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Editorial: County’s, city’s pothole problem shows need for tax

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The rash of potholes Columbus and Bartholomew County are having to repair after winter’s thaw is like piling one problem on another.

When vehicles travel upon weakened blacktop, potholes begin to appear on city streets and rural roads. County road crews have to patch potholes on more than 700 miles of roads. City crews have to fix holes on 261 miles of streets.

An especially cold winter made it nearly impossible to fix any potholes until now, providing more time for new potholes to form and others to worsen.

The solution to fixing potholes largely has been to patch them with hot or cold asphalt mixes, but that’s only a temporary solution. Ideally, entire stretches of roads would be repaved to prevent patchwork fixes each year. Streets typically last 15 to 20 years before they must be repaved.

However, the city and county struggle to repair their roads because of insufficient state and local funding, unable to repave as many as are needed each year. State funding has come from the Indiana fuel tax revenue, which has been declining.

The city should be resurfacing 13 to 17 miles of roads per year to keep ahead of the decay. In the 10 years prior to last summer, the city paved an average of 3.6 miles of streets annually. Columbus repaved 24 miles of roads in 2013, but that was made possible by using $4 million in funds from a failed sports complex bond.

Even though the Indiana Legislature last year increased the amount of money going to local communities for road repairs, with about $350,000 for Columbus, the city still runs behind in paving.

A more reliable stream of funding for local road improvements is needed. This is an opportunity for the Columbus City Council or Bartholomew County Council to enact a wheel tax for the entire county.

The tax, charged to motorists based on the number of wheels their vehicles have, is one of the funding mechanisms the legislature has made available for local governments. Traditionally, only a county council could pass the tax.

Last year, though, the legislature added a measure to the state budget bill, signed by Gov. Mike Pence, that gives local municipalities options for implementing the tax. One is if a municipality represents more than 50 percent of the population. The population of Columbus represents 57 percent of Bartholomew County’s residents.

County officials have been reluctant to enact the tax, saying they don’t want a new tax and have been making do by patching holes as they appear. City officials haven’t acted on the opportunity.

Elected officials should keep in mind that having a solid infrastructure is one of the keys to attracting new economic development for cities and counties. While less-traveled county roads do not need the same level of repair as the city’s more heavily traveled streets, Columbus is the county’s commerce engine.

Local roads will deteriorate more if additional funding is not available to properly maintain them.

However, a long-term solution is within the grasp of city and county officials.

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