The deteriorating state of bridges all comes down to money, said Mercer County engineer Jimmy L. Samaniego.
Like many regional engineers, Samaniego claims the lack of adequate budgets for bridge work is putting more strain on an already-suffering network.
“The funding we’re getting is just not good enough,” he said.
Samaniego and Mercer County will receive a little more than $150,000 from the Illinois Department of Transportation for work in 2014, and while Samaniego said that may sound like a healthy sum, it’s not much given how expensive bridge repairs, and particularly total bridge replacements, can cost.
“I would need three or four years of funding to construct one bridge. That’s why some counties only build a bridge every third or fourth year,” said Samaniego.
IDOT allocates funds to counties based on the cumulative mileage for all bridges housed within that county, but Samaniego argues funding should be solely need-based and dependent upon how many deficient bridges a county has. All counties also have access to a county bridge fund culled from property taxes, as well as federal grant money.
But securing federal funds can be a challenge, as a structure must have a sufficiency rating of 50 or below to be eligible, sometimes leaving the county with the choice of using state or township money for bridge repair, or wait for a bridge’s sufficiency rating to slip below 50 to qualify for federal funds.
“It can be an awful decision to make,” said Knox County engineer Duane Ratermann, who said funding increases have not kept up with growing costs for materials and construction.
“I’ve seen costs nearly triple in the last 25 years,” Ratermann said.
Engineers throughout the region have requested state funding increases, asking legislators to double the budget from $15 million to $30 million, with very little response. But David Goldberg, communications director for Transportation for America, the group that releases an annual report on the condition of bridges nationwide, said there are solutions to the funding problem, starting with the federal Motor Fuel Tax.
“We have to generate revenue somehow,” Goldberg said. “The federal gas tax hasn’t been changed since 1993, but since then purchasing power has really eroded.”
The current federal fuel tax sits at roughly 18 cents per gallon, and Goldberg said a bill before Congress to raise the federal motor fuel tax by 15 cents would greatly improve the overall funding picture for the nation’s bridges. For him, a hike in the Motor Fuel Tax becomes even more necessary for bridge funding as fewer motorists take to the road and cars are required to become more fuel efficient, thus decreasing the generation of revenue.
Page 2 of 2 -
Tazewell County engineer John Anderson also said an increase in the Motor Fuel Tax, as well as other user taxes — taxes on items like driver’s licenses and license plates — is the fairest method of funding bridge projects, even though he acknowledged such increases might be a tough sell.
“Our officials know it’s not popular to raise Motor Fuel Taxes,” Anderson said. “It’s very, very difficult, but people want their roads fixed.”
But Samaniego argued such increases might not alter Mercer County’s situation much, as the county doesn’t have a strong enough tax base to rely on tax revenue to fund bridge projects, which makes the county reliant on state and federal grants.
State Rep. Don Moffitt, R-Gilson, said a funding fix lies in curbing the divergence of money set aside for bridge work.
Moffitt said money often earmarked for road and bridge construction is then funneled into the cost of personnel or other concerns altogether.
“Those diversions can total up to several million dollars per year,” said Moffitt. He argued a funding solution should come in a capital improvement bill similar to the one passed in 2009 that provided nearly $14 billion for road and bridge work statewide.
In addition, Moffitt said Gov. Pat Quinn is hoping to pass such a bill this spring, which could potentially provide a shot in the arm for bridge repair projects, although how much would be allocated is not yet known.
For Ratermann and others, time is the enemy in addressing the questions of bridge safety.
“You know, 15 to 20 years ago, we we’re doing three to four bridges a year,” he said. “Now we’re doing two. We just keep falling further and further behind.”