The county will need to find additional money to maintain its roads and bridges, perhaps through a county wheel tax or sales tax, according to a report from a task force studying the county's road system.
Lancaster County will need an additional $15 million a year to maintain all county roads and bridges over the next 20 years.
Of that total, $9 million each year would be necessary to maintain those bridges deemed critical, the ones that already have or will soon have serious structural problems, based on the task force report.
Lancaster County will spend about $29.7 million this year on roads, bridges and other county engineering expenses. Slightly more than half, about $15.5 million, will come from property taxes.
The county has identified 76 bridges that need replacing, or one-quarter of the 304 bridges or bridge-length box culverts, said County Engineer Pam Dingman.
The Lancaster County Transportation Task Force, a group of citizens, staff and elected leaders, has been studying county road system needs since April with the help of Olsson Associates under an almost $100,000 contract.
A survey of task force members indicated a wheel tax had the most support for raising revenue for road and bridge work, followed by a county sales tax.
Increasing the property tax to provide more funding for county roads came in last on the survey.
However, neither a county wheel tax nor a county sales tax would bring in enough money to fund the $9 million to $12 million annual roads funding gap, according to the report.
A sales tax, which would apply to goods and services sold in rural areas or communities that don’t have a city sales tax in place, would bring in an estimated $700,000 to $2.1 million a year, depending on the tax rate. The county could impose a sales tax ranging from a half-cent to 1.5 cents.
The wheel tax would be added to registration fees for vehicles owned by people who live outside of Lincoln, which already has a city wheel tax. It could generate around $2.2 million a year, if it is structured similarly to Lincoln’s wheel tax of $74 a year on an automobile.
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A farmer on the task force, Rod Hollman, said he had nine vehicles, including grain trucks, but just three of the vehicles see consistent use on county roads. That use difference should be considered under any county wheel tax, he said.
The study group also strongly supported using bonds for some county road projects, but that might require a change in state law, according to Jeff McKerrow, with Olsson Associates.
“Finding revenue is a messy business. It is not something that will be finished in days or weeks. It is going to be months and years,” he said.
The county attorney's staff will be asked to research the specifics of potential new revenue sources.
The task force's final report acknowledges what Dingman has been saying for several years — that the county bridge infrastructure is in very bad shape.
Many of the county’s bridges are old and there has never been enough money to properly maintain them, the county engineer said.
For the past 20 years or more, the county has tried to shore up abutments or put a new deck on a Works Progress Administration-era bridge, fixes that might add 10 to 20 years of life, when the bridge should have been replaced, she said.
“There is a limit to how many times you can Band-Aid these things together,” Dingman said.
The study indicated the county’s budget per mile is significantly less than similar counties in the Midwest, about $18,000 per mile, compared to $30,000 to more than $40,000 per mile in other areas.
Lancaster County has 1,304 miles of roads, mostly gravel. Only about 237 miles are paved, according to the report.
The county got high marks for maintenance of its gravel roads, said McKerrow.
“You should all be proud of what you are doing with the resources you have," said McKerrow during a final meeting of the task force last month. "You have taken your penny and stretched it about as far as anyone can.”