Lancaster County will need $300 million to maintain all country roads and bridges over the next 20 years. And it has to find a way to come up with that cash as soon as possible.
That led the Lancaster County Transportation Task Force, which has been studying road system needs since April, to look at taxing options to raise the revenue.
It’s first choice would be a county wheel tax, that, if added to the fees on vehicles registered outside the city of Lincoln and structured like Lincoln’s $74-a-year wheel tax, would generate around $2.2 million annually.
That’s a start but far from the $9 million required each year just to maintain bridges that already have or soon will be deemed critical -- the ones with serious structural problems that need extensive repair work or replacement. The county, according to engineer Pam Dingman, has identified 76 bridges that need replacing, nearly a quarter of its 304 bridges or bridge-length box culverts.
Option two is a county sales tax, applied to goods and services sold in rural areas or communities that don’t now have a sales tax. That take could be set at a rate from a half cent to 1.5 cents and would bring in $700,000 to $2.1 million annually.
Even utilizing the most optimistic projections, the two taxes won’t pay for bridge maintenance and replacement, much less the repair and improvement needed on the increasingly trafficked county roads.
That leaves property tax, always the least popular option, as the only way to raise sufficient revenue. This year, Lancaster County will spend about $29.7 million on roads, bridges and other engineering expenses, with about $15.5 million coming from property taxes.
So a $5 million increase, needed to hit the $9 million mark, would be about a 33 percent jump in property taxes going to roads.
The task force also “strongly supported” use of bonds for county road projects. That, however, would likely require changes in state law.
With ever more traffic running on its deteriorating roads and bridges, the county can’t wait for legislative action, which could take months, years or might never occur.
That being the case, it should begin serious public consideration of the wheel tax and sales taxes and acknowledge the near inevitability of increasing property taxes -- which will impact those in Lincoln as well -- to pay for roads and bridges.