Based on the number of road and bridge closures in rural Lancaster County, it’s abundantly clear that the status quo – not to mention the number of orange cones and barricades – is untenable.
The needed fixes are long overdue. And expensive, too.
Accordingly, the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners, at long last, has done the responsible thing by figuring out how to produce the revenue needed to catch up on deferred maintenance.
Of the three options before county commissioners, only one is fair to the entire county – their preferred method, a wheel tax for rural portions of the county that would match Lincoln’s $74-a-year rate.
Countywide increases in property or sales taxes, the other two choices on the table, would have double dipped into the pockets of Lincoln taxpayers. With its residents already paying a wheel tax directed at road improvements – with a voter-approved sales tax hike as well – the city is already shouldering its fair burden of this cost.
A benefit of the proposed new wheel tax is that it would be directed solely toward roads and bridges outside Lincoln. The money raised in rural Lancaster County and any participating towns, estimated at between $3.3 million and $3.8 million a year, is designed to stay in the area where it’s generated and needed most.
Furthermore, the decision to tax certain farm vehicles at a lower rate represents a fair compromise. Given that they’re used primarily around harvest time, they don’t contribute as much wear and tear on Lancaster County infrastructure.
Despite these pluses, the Journal Star editorial board is less than enamored by the county’s past inaction. Previous commissioners who pledged to keep the levy down at all costs have departed the County Board, but their replacements have been saddled with a huge problem not of their making.
Their decision not to join a joint public agency with Lincoln in 2005, when it instituted its wheel tax, was a missed opportunity. Since then, commissioners have repeatedly shortchanged requests by County Engineer Pam Dingman, who annually sought additional money to fix ailing roads and bridges.
Now, the chickens have come home to roost. Years of chronic underinvestment reached a breaking point – with nearly a quarter of Lancaster County bridges closed or deemed structurally deficient – at a time when the county could least afford it.
In their budget – which will feature a levy increase for the first time in a decade despite rising property values – commissioners have proposed an extra $3 million for Dingman’s budget after she asked for $4 million. Throwing in the wheel tax money, if it passes, her office will receive more than $6 million in new money the coming year.
This one-time spike shows how far behind the county’s fallen.
As such, we begrudgingly back the wheel tax proposal. It’s the lone equitable way to slow the degradation of Lancaster County roads and bridges after years of underfunding.