Funding Issues in a Microcosm

As the highway bill extension deadline is set to expire at the end of this month, how to properly fund our highways and infrastructure is being debated and contested all across our country. Several states and municipalities have had to cancel or cut back on scheduled road projects as funding shrinks or dries up all together.

Hamilton, IL, is one small example of the bigger problem. Described in a recent article in the Daily Gate City (“Decision 2015: Asphalt or Gravel?”), the road issues plaguing Hamilton reflect those happening across the nation.

Hamilton, population 2,951, is a small town on the Mississippi River in the Western mid-section of Illinois. It has 27 miles worth of roads to maintain and only enough money to cover about five blocks per year.

For many years, the town had a well-funded street program, but now the funding has dried up, and Hamilton is working hard to simply maintain what it can.

Fuel taxes produce about $72,000 a year for the town, which goes toward basic maintenance such as street patching, snow removal, culverts, gravel and other needs.

“The amount of motor fuel tax has gone down in the last decade, and the cost has gone up substantially,” says Hamilton’s Mayor Steve Lowman. “Basically we’re not doing the same work we did 10 or 20 years ago. We still have the same miles of street, but we don’t have as much money to maintain them.

“My biggest fear is that they will start to deteriorate to the point where we’ll never be able to catch up.”

In the recent April elections, an advisory referendum was posed to Hamilton voters. They were asked whether they would support a municipal utilities tax to help combat deteriorating roads.

It’s estimated the utilities tax would generate $100,000 annually, which would allow Hamilton street crews to sealcoat each street once every nine years.

The gap between what’s recommended by the Illinois DOT and what the city has been able to do with less funds has been kept manageable only by proper upkeep and repair. Without the additional funding, the streets may not receive any necessary repair at all.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Hamilton voters backed the advisory question 320-240 regarding the establishment of a utility tax to fund street repairs. When it comes down to it, people do understand the importance of our transportation network and roadways to a functioning society.

Let’s hope the federal highway bill has a happy ending this month too.