Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Rural areas find road and bridge upkeep more difficult as traffic grows and trucks get heavier but taxes remain taboo

"Throughout much of the Midwest and South, the rural transportation system is crumbling. Two-thirds of the nation’s freight emanates from rural areas. Traffic volume has increased. And over the years, tractor-trailers and farm equipment have been supersized, ballooning in length, breadth and weight," Patricia Cohen reports for The New York Times. "A legally loaded semi-trailer truck can produce 5,000 to 10,000 times the road damage of one car according to some estimates, said Benjamin J. Jordan, director of the Wisconsin Transportation Information Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Roads and bridges have not kept up."

Many state and county governments are finding it difficult to keep rural roads in repair, Cohen reports. Though rural areas have only 19 percent of the nation's population, 68% of the nation's total road miles are in rural areas. Who pays for road repairs depends: county or city governments generally pay for local road repairs, and states generally pay for highway repairs. Some of that money comes from gas taxes at the federal and state level, with rural areas in the West and South relying more heavily on federal money to pay for roads.

A few states, like Illinois, also empower counties to assess additional taxes specifically for road repair. States are sometimes leery of implementing local gas taxes or property taxes to raise money for road repair since it's generally unpopular with voters, Cohen reports. Al Rinka, the highway commissioner in Trempeleau County, Wisconsin, where Cohen focused her story, told her that taxpayers need a “culture change.”

Cohen writes, “Someone will beg to have a road repaired, Mr. Rinka said. ‘I’ll say, “O.K., I’ll fix your road, and you’re going to see an increase in your property tax.” “Oh, no, no,” they say, “I don’t want that.’””

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