GREENFIELD — Hancock County Highway Engineer Joe Copeland has four words when it comes to legislative chatter on more money for local roadwork.
“I can only hope,” Copeland said.
Last week, the House Ways and Means committee discussed three bills that would boost funding for road maintenance in counties, cities and towns.
While the bills have yet to make it out of committee, local lawmakers say this could be the year that something is changed. After all, Hancock County officials are not the only ones feeling the pinch of stagnant revenue with increasing cost of materials.
“I know they’re all in dire need of infrastructure, because the gas tax (revenue) is going down every year and the ability to build or maintain a mile of road goes up each year,” said Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield. “Everything is going in the wrong direction.”
Cherry serves on the House Ways and Means committee and said because the state is in a better financial situation than it has been for several years, this might be the time to give more money to counties, cities and towns.
One proposal would send funds from the state’s sales tax on fuel to local communities. Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, proposes giving half of the 7 percent sales tax on gas to local units of government.
The state also imposes an 18-cent-per-gallon excise tax to fund roadwork. While some of that money already goes to local communities, the rest is used by license branches and Indiana State Police. Reps. Tom Saunders and Todd Huston are suggesting removing those two from the gas tax pool to provide more funding for cities and counties.
Another bill written by Saunders, R-Lewisville, suggests distributing money to communities based on the ratio of cars and trucks the community as compared to the state total.
Cherry says whatever is done he hopes it’s not just a one-time bump in funding.
“Whatever we want to do, we want to be able to sustain it for the future, too,” Cherry said.
Many communities, including Hancock County, also have a wheel tax to pay for road work. But Cherry said with more cars being fuel-efficient or using alternative energy, there has been a decrease in revenue from the state’s gas tax.
“They just need more tools for their tool box, and everybody wants good roads,” he said.
Sen. Mike Crider said he, too, would be in favor of a change in how much money local street departments receive.
Crider, R-Greenfield, said he heard about infrastructure problems throughout the campaign last year, and now that he’s in office he would like to see it a priority in the two-year budget that will be passed this session.
Crider added that Major Moves money that was received from selling the Indiana Toll Road created an artificial bump in the last few years for state and local street projects.
Hancock County Commissioner Tom Stevens said he would like to see a change in the state’s gas tax, because consumption of gas is on the decline. He would be in favor of an increase in the tax or some other change that would send more money to local government.
Ultimately, as more people purchase electric cars, Stevens said the state legislature should also consider a tax on those vehicles to pay for roadwork.
Funding for local roads has been a point of contention locally, as more county roads have been turned to gravel as a way to cheaply maintain them.
Copeland said as funding from the state has decreased, the cost of material has been on the rise. The county paid $22 a ton for asphalt about 10 years ago, and now the county is paying nearly double at $40 a ton.
The county highway department has been spreading chip and seal over asphalt to try to preserve the asphalt a few more years before roads need to be repaired. Other low-traveled streets have simply been turned to gravel.
Last year, county officials even debated a controversial bond issue that would have been used to buy new trucks for the county highway department. Proponents of the bond borrowing money for new trucks would free up highway department money to pay for asphalt. Ultimately the bond was turned down.
Copeland said he is eager for whatever help is offered from state legislators. He’s had to ignore the least-traveled roads in the county for several years.
“All of us need it, the cities, the towns, and all of the counties,” Copeland said. “Drive around Greenfield. Drive around the county. It’s just not there – the money (for roadwork). I’ve got some roads that are just completely falling apart and should have been chip-sealed three or four years ago. No money.”