GOSHEN — The influx of cash from the state’s gas tax and vehicle registration increases is expected to help restore many of Indiana’s deficient bridges to top-notch condition.
The state has 19,245 bridges, according to the Federal Highway Transportation Administration’s National Bridge Inventory. Of those, 1,525, or 7.9 percent, were rated as structurally deficient in 2016. That total includes bridges on federal highways.
According to the National Bridge Inventory compiled by the Federal Highway Administration, a bridge with a “structurally deficient” rating “… has one or more structural defects that require attention. This status does not indicate the severity of the defect, but rather that a defect is present.”
In some cases, the defects would only become a public safety hazard if heavy traffic or overweight loads traveled over the bridges, officials explained. In other situations, bridges need repairs — and soon — to avoid major infrastructure failure.
But help is on the way, lawmakers say.
The General Assembly raised the state’s gas tax 10 cents per gallon to 28 cents beginning July 1 and also raised vehicle registration fees by $15 beginning in January. In addition, owners of electric cars will be charged $150 annually and those who own hybrid vehicles will be charged a $50 fee.
All those changes will fund the state’s $4.7 billion, five-year Next Level Roads initiative, announced by Gov. Eric Holcomb in August.
“Being it is long term and sustainable over 20 years, it will make a significant impact,” Scott Manning, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Transportation, said about the new taxes and fees for road and bridge projects.
According to Manning, counties will receive a 40 percent increase in state funding for roads and bridges through the Next Level Roads plan.
“They will be better able to address those bridges that have reached the point where they need replaced or repaired,” Manning said of local governments.
For INDOT, the new tax revenue is significant, according to Manning.
“We are able to now invest $400 million in INDOT bridges. If the funding bill had not passed we would have invested $200 million. Had we stayed at status quo we would have seen the bridges maintained at fair or better status falling off,” he said.
For companies that build roads and bridges, the new money means more work that will result in an improved infrastructure for all Hoosiers, according to Gene Yarkie, vice president of operations for Rieth-Riley Construction, headquartered in Goshen.
“It means a brighter future,” Yarkie said about his employee-owned company that has 12 Indiana locations. “Funding has been so flat for so long. You have to realize the increases we see now are making up for no, or little increases, over the past 15 or 20 years. That is what people need to understand. Countrywide, we spend a very small amount compared to the GDP (gross domestic product) compared to other countries.”
He said additional road and bridge revenue has been collected since July 1 and is now starting to flow into county coffers.
“We are seeing it,” Yakie said. “County and cities are coming out with additional funding, additional projects. So it is already having an impact this fall. But it will really start to have an impact in 2018.”
All local bridges in Indiana are the responsibility of county governments, according to Elkhart County Highway Superintendent Jeff Taylor. In Elkhart County, funding flows through the Major Bridge Fund and the Cumulative Capital Bridge Fund, he added. The cumulative fund is money moved there from the general fund. He said leaders of some Indiana counties skip that step and opt to dip into the general fund.
In Elkhart County, the tax rate for the Major Bridge Fund is about 9 cents per $100 of assessed value, and the rate for the cumulative bridge fund is about 4 cents per $100 of assessed value, according to Taylor.
The recession of 2008-09, combined with the state’s property tax caps, reduced local bridge revenue for several years.
“The hardest hit funds were the bridge funds because of the tax caps,” Taylor said. “At its peak … the Major Bridge Fund was bringing in about $2.2 million a year. The (Cumulative Bridge Fund) was bringing in $1.2 million and it dropped to as low as $700,000 on cum bridge and the Major Bridge was down to $1.5 million a year.”
Thirteen of 277 total federal and local bridges in Elkhart County are rated structurally deficient, according to the National Bridge Inventory. That amounts to 5.9 percent. Several of those are scheduled to be replaced in the next few years, including the Mishawaka Road bridge over Yellow Creek and the C.R. 35 bridge over the Little Elkhart River.
Other Indiana counties have much higher percentages of structurally deficient bridges. Sullivan County — located on the west side of the state, south of Terre Haute — leads the state at 29.8 percent of its bridges rated structurally deficient, according to NBI data. Harrison County — located in southern Indiana, west of Louisville, Kentucky, — is the only Indiana county with no deficient spans.
The Association of Indiana Counties Executive Director David Bottorff explained each county now has an asset management plan in place due to state requirements for the state’s $1 billion 21st Century Crossroads road and bridge grant funding program adopted in 2016. That means as the new tax and registration funds roll in, each county will quickly be able to direct funds to needed bridge projects.
Bottorff’s association lobbied for a long-term funding solution for roads and the gas tax and registration increases solves the funding problem counties were concerned about.
“Not only does it help us catch up on some of the declines in the past, it has really established a good 10-, 15- or even 20-year plan where that money can be relied upon.”
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