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02-20-03: Six-cent state tax hike could bring millions for area roads
The Daily Standard
    A proposed 6-cent increase to the state gasoline tax could convert to an extra million dollars for road upgrades in rural Mercer County.
    While gas prices can be a sour subject, Mercer County Engineer Jim Wiechart said the small increase included in Gov. Bob Taft's 2004-2005 budget plan could bring much needed money for the county's skinny roads and underrated bridges.
    The legislature is now hammering out a budget corrections bill for the current operating budget, but Taft has already released his plan for the next budget, which runs from July 1, 2003, to June 30, 2005.
    The governor's transportation plan includes increasing the current 22-cents-per-gallon gas tax by 2-cents a year for the next three years. The change would give $99 million for local road upgrades.
    It would be the first gas tax increase since 1993.
    The gas tax would continue to fund the Ohio Department of Transportation's (ODOT's) construction program, but the governor's plan entails phasing-out a large part of the gas tax funding to the Ohio State Highway Patrol. That change could bring in an extra $190 million for local governments. The highway patrol's funding would switch to a fee-based charge to municipalities.
    Once fully implemented, the plan provides approximately $121 million annually for Ohio's cities, $105 million annually for Ohio's counties and $63 million annually for Ohio's townships.
    Wiechart said Wednesday his office received $1.38 million in gas tax dollars last year, the same amount each of the 88 county's received.
    According to the County Engineer's Association of Ohio, each county would be in line for an extra $1.2 million in funding by 2007, if the plan is fully implemented.
    "Nobody likes a tax increase, but this is truly a user fee," Wiechart said. "And we feel there's a need there."
    While the Mercer County Engineer's Office had 60 bridges replaced in the last three years, using nearly $5 million in grant money, Wiechart said there are still many unsafe bridges and roads.
    Wiechart said of the 438 bridges on county and township roads, there are still 29 bridges that have an insufficient weight limit, 39 that are narrow or one lane and another 78 have a sufficiency rating of less than 50. All bridges are graded annually by the engineer's office for functionality.
    Among the 836 miles of county and township roads, only 12 percent have the recommended road width of 20 feet. Seventy percent are 18 feet wide and 17 percent are under 17 feet wide.
    Rural roads have been taking a beating in recent years, the engineer said.
    "Ten or 15 years ago you'd never see a semi on those rural roads, now farmers are using semi's to haul grain," Wiechart said.
    Several roads top the engineer's list of most needy, including Sharpsburg and Union City roads and Mud Pike west of Celina, where skinny roads and quick drop-offs make for dangerous travel.
    "We just could get a lot done if this were passed, or something like it," Wiechart said.
    In Celina, the change could greatly help the general fund. In 2002, $234,000 was received from the gas tax and a near amount was transferred out of the general fund to maintain streets, Auditor Pat Smith said.
    Though it seems to be a great idea for local roads, Smith has learned in his 20-plus years in local government not to count on proposals.
    "I try not to get all excited over maybes," Smith said.


Phone: (419)586-2371,   Fax: (419)586-6271
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The Standard Printing Company
P.O. Box 140, Celina, OH 45822