There are 350 miles of county roads in Rice County. Nearly all of these roads were designed in the 1950s, when traffic patterns and farm equipment and operations were very different than they are today.
then... and now..
The Rice County budget has money for routine maintenance – snowplowing and pothole filling (though not much in the way of ditch maintenance). The state aid highway fund provides some support for the 150 miles of CSAH roads, but there are zero dollars in the county operating budget for reworking 200 miles of our CR county road system. So what are the options?
Rice County could let the county roads fall apart, become increasingly unsafe, and kill or injure more people who drive the roads or try to walk or bicycle on non-existent road shoulders. OK, now you know my bias. If we agree we should avoid that, what could we do?
Rice County could raise property taxes and put it in the operating budget. The county highway engineer figures $2,000,000 per year would provide enough money to keep our roads from completely deteriorating This tax falls most heavily on commercial, industrial and farming operations, though it’s cars that generate most of the road traffic. So are property taxes the fairest way?
Rice County could bond. Why not? Interest rates are relatively low and remaking a road is a 15-20 year investment.This is what the county board did in 2009, when it realized they had budgeted no operating funds. The revenues from this bond end in 2012. A new bond would mean we could pay $2 million for the roads annually in our property taxes plus interest. Is that a deal?
Rice County could enact a wheelage tax. The county could request the state legislature to allow it to enact a wheelage tax. A wheelage tax of about $25 would bring about $1,500,000 for remaking roads, and would fall primarily to city residents. But if you think about it, in and around cities and rural residential neighborhoods – where there is more traffic and more density – is where inadequate and unsafe road design is most apparent.
(Just a note – some folks I’ve met when going door to door would welcome a bicycle wheelage tax too – to help pay for the bike trails in our communities. And a local blog notes some cities have enacted a utilities franchise tax.)
Rice County could levy a sales tax for roads. A fraction of a penny sales tax could also bring in money for roads. In these shaky economic times, retail stores would worry it would drive customers to stores in other counties. And it would be viewed as a regressive tax, affecting the poor more heavily than the rich. But on the other hand, people use those old and unsafe roads to get to the stores and markets in our cities.
What do you think?