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Column: More money needed to maintain state roads

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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.

The problem is especially acute in Bartholomew County and especially within the city limits of Columbus.

There is only so much that can be allocated for street repairs in a budget that incorporates numerous other agencies and their individual priorities.

The city also is bedeviled by circumstances over which it has little control. Paving materials have skyrocketed in price an unpleasant combination with the  decrease in the city’s share of fuel tax revenues.

While the city might be locked in to what it can afford to set aside, the need for those repairs has grown and likely will get even more critical in the future.

City Engineer David Hayward has estimated that the city needs to repair approximately 14 miles of streets each year just to stay even.

Right now, the engineer’s department is looking at being able to only do four miles a year.

If allowed to continue a serious backlog could develop, impacting tnot only the quality of life for residents but economic development opportunities.

Drivers currently pay the 18-cents-per-gallon fuel tax every time they fill up. 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 BMV 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 up a portion of the fuel tax, which could be split between the 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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