Running out of gas tax funds

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series that examines the local impact of the state Road Use Tax Fund.

Local officials are coming out in support of changes to the Road Use Tax Fund that financially supports road and bridge maintenance throughout the state.

When fuels are purchased, the state taxes a flat amount from the sale. The state excise tax on common ethanol-blended gasoline is 19 cents per gallon. Portions of the Road Use Tax Fund go to primary roads, secondary roads, farm-to-market country roads and city streets.

Ed Sadler, city manager of Webster City, said those funds go toward building, patching and plowing streets in the city. What’s left of that, the city uses for bridges. However, those leftover funds are getting smaller and smaller.

The issue was discussed at a townhall meeting with Rep. Rob Bacon and Sen. Jerry Behn in Webster City on March 15. At that meeting, Webster City Mayor Doug Getter said it was time for legislators to increase the state fuel tax for the first time since 1989.

Getter said he has been following the Road Use Tax Fund since 2006 when he was a member of the Urbandale City Council. He said that as far as he’s concerned the legislature has done nothing to further support roads and bridges on local levels.

“The issue that was raised then is, we have a need in this state for sustaining roads and bridges,” Getter said. “It has been eight years and nothing, absolutely nothing, has been accomplished. In the meantime, our roads continue to deteriorate, our bridges continue to fall, what’s it going to take?”

A 2011 study by Transportation for America said that 21.7 percent of Iowa’s bridges were classified as structurally deficient, the third worst in the nation. Getter said he wondered if it would take a major bridge collapse, such as the one in Minneapolis in 2007, to get legislators to act.

“We are a rural state dependent on transportation for every sector of our economy and we are not able, as a legislative body and as an executive branch, to get off the dime and get something happening,” Getter said.

As the fuel tax has remained stable, so has the amount that Webster City has planned to put toward roads and bridges. Sadler said the city’s best estimate is that the funding the tax brings in to the city remains the same for several years. While Sadler said that money has supported work on a couple local bridges last year and this year, the money is running out and costs are increasing.

“It costs us more to run our trucks, it costs us more for the asphalt to patch or pave the roads and they aren’t giving us any more money,” Sadler said.

Webster City uses money from its general fund and the Road Use Tax Fund to pay for these expenses. However, Getter said there’s no other money to divert toward construction and repair of these transportation systems. The funds are needed for local roads, said Getter. He cited streets built many years ago in Webster City that are not necessarily up to today’s construction standards or traffic loads.

The City Council of Webster City passed a resolution about a month ago supporting an increase in the state fuel tax by 10 cents per gallon that would be phased in over three years. This comes at a time when Bacon, Behn and others in the legislature have been discussing raising the tax or increasing the amount that would go to cities and counties. At the townhall forum, Getter asked that legislators agree on a process to bring relief to the Road Use Tax Fund before their session ends.

“You can be as creative as you want to be, but by God, get something done,” Getter said.