Whenever the media reports on infrastructure, much of the time the discussion centers on urban cores and highways. Small towns and rural roads are often left out of the discussion but related infrastructure needs can be just as critical. Securing adequate funding for road and bridge maintenance requires the active involvement and cooperation of rural, urban, and state government leaders alike.
Here are snapshot portraits of three rural states and how each is asking questions while searching for solutions to some pressing transportation needs.
Recently in West Virginia, three mayors from Preston County met with their U.S. Representative, David McKinley. As pointed out during the meeting, small towns have difficulty raising enough revenue to do anything over and above the basics. That is why small towns sometimes engage in activities such as raising local sales tax or allowing speed traps to help fund local infrastructure problems and pay for police services.
McKinley told the mayors that grant money on a federal level is available to help small towns. Tunnelton Mayor Brian Harris pointed out though that he could never justify hiring a grant writer when his town of 300 people had difficulties funding a police department.
Infrastructure decisions are difficult for rural towns where choices are primarily based on three questions:
—Where will we find the funding?
—Will we ever be able to afford it?
—Can we let repairs go for another year?
In early October, West Virginia voters passed overwhelmingly a $1.6 billion state bond measure to repair and build roads and bridges. This is the right direction for the relatively rural state but will the state help small towns with few resources write transportation plans, proposals and grants so that they can share in the infrastructure funding?
Governor Dennis Daugaard recently wrote an editorial about the importance of transportation planning. The state currently has 82,000 miles of roadway and in 2015 Daugaard signed a road funding bill that generated $85 million in new annual revenue. He said the need was great and it was much better to raise the gas tax by six cents, and increase the motor vehicle excise tax and license plate fees to maintain good roads rather than repair bad ones.
Since 2015, South Dakota has worked on 6,078 miles of state highway and repaired 172 bridges. An additional $9 million will be available in April 2018 to fix more bridges.
To be eligible to receive funding, counties must have a five-year transportation plan and levy a county wheel tax. Cities and counties must provide a minimum of a 20 percent financial match for any grants. Eligible bridges must serve multiple residences, farms, ranches and be located on fully maintained public roadways.
Missouri’s Governor Eric Greitens recently appointed citizens to a 21st Century Transportation System Task Force to help him figure out how to fund urban and rural transportation.
Task force member and ex-state Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson said in a recent meeting that over the past ten years there has been a 50-50 split between urban and rural funding and that the real problem is lack of resources for all regions of the state. Apparently the state has been losing matching federal dollars because the state cannot always come up with the necessary 20 percent matching funds to contribute for a project.
A three-part report is due to the Governor in January and a gas tax hike might well be one of the recommendations. The state’s gas tax has not increased since 1996. In 2016, Missouri spent nearly $1.4 billion on state roads and bridges.
Funding rural infrastructure takes leadership from both elected officials and citizens who can help in the process. Hard choices need to be made so that the country’s infrastructure can continue to function at all levels of society. Unfortunately leadership today too often defaults to levying new taxes without first taking a hard look at spending on projects that aren’t as critical to everyday life as well-maintained roads and bridges.